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New planet around a binary system

It is always fascinating when science fiction becomes reality. This is the case with the Kepler-16b, a binary system that proved to host a cold giant planet (like Saturn), which compiles from gas and rocks. This opens a wide new category of planetary systems since most of the stars belong to a binary system.

For more information see NASA’s Kepler announcement and the related page with star/planet’s properties, along with the publication (Doyle L et al 2011: Science – in press, arXiv-1109.3432).

Amazing image of Kepler’s candidate transiting planets

An amazing picture was published at the APOD today ! It shows all 1235 candidate planets discovered by Kepler in the same relative scale along with the Sun (top right … the lonely star) with the silhouettes of Earth and Jupiter. Somebody has to search deep in the high resolution image to spot the planets (all of them in … transit !).

Kepler’s candidate transiting planets
Credit to Jason Rowe & Kepler Mission

Kepler’s first results

Kepler is a space based telescope to study a small area between Cygnus and Lyra for exoplanet transits of all possible targets but mainly to find Earth sized candidates in the habitable zone. A fist publication reveals these numbers:

“On 1 February 2011 the Kepler Mission released data for 156,453 stars observed from the beginning of the science observations on 2 May through 16 September 2009. There are 1235 planetary candidates with transit like signatures detected in this period. These are associated with 997 host stars. Distributions of the characteristics of the planetary candidates are separated into five class-sizes; 68 candidates of approximately Earth-size (radius < 1.25 Earth radii), 288 super-Earth size (1.25 Earth radii < radius < 2 Earth radii), 662 Neptune-size (2 Earth radii < radius < 6 Earth radii), 165 Jupiter-size (6 Earth radii < radius < 15 Earth radii), and 19 up to twice the size of Jupiter (15 Earth radii < radius < 22 Earth radii). In the temperature range appropriate for the habitable zone, 54 candidates are found with sizes ranging from Earth-size to larger than that of Jupiter. Five are less than twice the size of the Earth. Over 74% of the planetary candidates are smaller than Neptune. The observed number versus size distribution of planetary candidates increases to a peak at two to three times Earth-size and then declines inversely proportional to area of the candidate. Our current best estimates of the intrinsic frequencies of planetary candidates, after correcting for geometric and sensitivity biases, are 6% for Earth-size candidates, 7% for super-Earth size candidates, 17% for Neptune-size candidates, and 4% for Jupiter-size candidates. Multi-candidate, transiting systems are frequent; 17% of the host stars have multi-candidate systems, and 33.9% of all the candidates are part of multi-candidate systems.” [ Borucki WJ et al 2011, arXiv1102.0541v1 ]

And all these in 105 square degrees field of view which is (well, rather large for an astronomical instrument) only a small part of the whole sky, only 1/400 ! The numbers are more exciting if we include the fact that all of these systems are transits which means that a specific geometry is needed in order to see the dimming of the stars’ brightness due to the pass of the planet(s) in front of them. But more time is needed to validate these results as the transits must been seen again and again in order to be sure that what is seen is real and not something else, that’s why they are candidates and not confirmed planets yet. But still the numbers are huge and … promising!

More exciting results include the fact that before Kepler none Earth-sized candidates or candidates inside the habitable zone were known and now there are 68 and 54 candidates respectively. In addition, complex systems are discovered like the Kepler-11 which has 6 planets [ Lissauer JL et al 2011, NaturearXiv1102.0291 ] and a rocky planet [Batalha NM et 2011 – arXiv1102.0605 ].

As stated by the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden: ” In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality “.