NASA’S KEPLER SPACE TELESCOPE HAS DISCOVERED FIVE NEW PLANETS BEYOND THE SOLAR SYSTEM

                                                                            NASA’s Kepler space telescope finds five new exoplanets

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This image taken by the Kepler telescope and released by NASA in 2009 shows small portion of Kepler’s full field of view — an expansive, 100-square-degree patch of sky in our Milky Way galaxy. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered five new planets beyond the solar system, the US space agency said Monday, just 10 months after Kepler launched into space to find Earth-like planets.

AFP – NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered five new planets beyond the solar system, the US space agency said Monday, just 10 months after Kepler launched into space to find Earth-like planets.

The discovery of the five exoplanets "contributes to our understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve from the gas and dust disks that give rise to both the stars and their planets," NASA’s William Borucki, principal science investigator for the Kepler mission, said in a statement.

But all five exoplanets are "too hot for life as we know it," NASA said.

The newly discovered planets are known as "hot Jupiters" because of their large masses and extreme temperatures, which range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,204 – 1,649 degrees Celsius) — hotter than molten lava.

Their orbits last between three and five days, meaning they follow paths close to their stars, which are hotter and larger than the Earth’s sun, NASA said.

The smallest of the newly discovered planets is roughly the size of Neptune, the fourth largest planet in Earth’s solar system, and the biggest is about the size of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

One of the planets, which have been given the unimaginative names of Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b, is similar in many ways to Neptune, although its irradiation level is much higher.

Another planet is one of the least dense ever discovered, and along with the other three, confirms the existence of planets with densities substantially lower than those predicted for gas giant planets.

The five exoplanets were among discoveries made by the Kepler space telescope in the first six weeks after it became operational in May last year.

Borucki presented the early discoveries and other findings at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington on Monday.

Kepler looks for the signatures of planets by measuring dips in a star’s brightness which are caused by planets crossing in front of them and periodically blocking out part of the starlight.

The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip in brightness while the temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet’s orbital period.

Kepler is NASA’s first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting stars similar to our sun.

It launched in March last year, equipped with the largest camera ever sent into space — a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices — and is expected to continue its science operations until at least November 2012.

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