Artist concept. A crop of more than 100 planets, discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, includes four in Earth’s size-range orbiting a single dwarf star. Two of these planets are too hot to support life as we know it, but two are in the star’s “habitable” zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface. These small, rocky worlds are far closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun. But because the star is smaller and cooler than ours, its habitable zone is much closer. One of the two planets in the habitable zone, K2-72c, has a “year” about 15 Earth-days long—the time it takes to complete one orbit. This closer planet is likely about 10% warmer than Earth. On the second, K2-72e, a year lasts 24 Earth days, this slightly more distant planet would be about 6% colder than Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL
The researchers achieved this extraordinary “roundup” of exoplanets by combining data with follow-up observations by earth-based telescopes including the North Gemini telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Automated Planet Finder of the University of California Observatories, and the Large Binocular Telescope operated by the University of Arizona. The discoveries are published online in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
Both Kepler and its K2 mission discover new planets by measuring the subtle dip in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. In its initial mission, Kepler surveyed just one patch of sky in the northern hemisphere, determining the frequency of planets whose size and temperature might be similar to Earth orbiting stars similar to our sun. In the spacecraft’s extended mission in 2013, it lost its ability to precisely stare at its original target area, but a brilliant fix created a second life for the telescope that is proving scientifically fruitful.
After the fix, Kepler started its K2 mission, which has provided an ecliptic field of view with greater opportunities for Earth-based observatories in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Additionally, the K2 mission is entirely community-driven with all targets proposed by the scientific community.
Because it covers more of the sky, the K2 mission is capable of observing a larger fraction of cooler, smaller, red-dwarf type stars, and because such stars are much more common in the Milky Way than sun-like stars, nearby stars will predominantly be red dwarfs.
“An analogy would be to say that Kepler performed a demographic study, while the K2 mission focuses on the bright and nearby stars with different types of planets,” said Ian Crossfield. “The K2 mission allows us to increase the number of small, red stars by a factor of 20, significantly increasing the number of astronomical ‘movie stars’ that make the best systems for further study.”
To validate candidate planets identified by K2, the researchers obtained high-resolution images of the planet-hosting stars as well as high-resolution optical spectroscopy. By dispersing the starlight as through a prism, the spectrographs allowed the researchers to infer the physical properties of a star — such as mass, radius and temperature — from which the properties of any planets orbiting it can be inferred.
“This bountiful list of validated exoplanets from the K2 mission highlights the fact that the targeted examination of bright stars and nearby stars along the ecliptic is providing many interesting new planets,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “These targets allow the astronomical community ease of follow-up and characterization, providing a few gems for first study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which could perhaps tell us about the planets’ atmospheres.”
This work was performed in part under contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) funded by NASA through the Sagan Fellowship Program executed by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.
NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
For more information on the Kepler and the K2 mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler
For more information about exoplanets, visit: https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/