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The planet-hunting Kepler space telescope has found its first extrasolar planets: three alien worlds that had been previously discovered with ground-based telescopes. The finds confirm that Kepler's instruments are sensitive enough to detect Earth-like planets around sun-like stars – but they might also be unexpectedly sensitive to charged particles in space that can zap circuitry.
Kepler launched on 6 March with a simple charge: Stare at a swatch of sky for three and a half years, and look for Earths. The telescope will hunt transiting exoplanets, planets that pass in front of their stars and dim their brightness at regular intervals.
The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:
1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.
The observations were collected from a planet called HAT-P-7, known to transit a star located about 1,000 light years from Earth. The planet orbits the star in just 2.2 days and is 26 times closer than Earth is to the sun. Its orbit, combined with a mass somewhat larger than the planet Jupiter, classifies this planet as a "hot Jupiter." It is so close to its star, the planet is as hot as the glowing red heating element on a kitchen stove.
NASA scientists who put the telescope through a 10-day test after its March 6 launch said this week that Kepler is working well. Its ability to detect minute changes in light has enabled scientists to determine that a planet orbiting a distant star has an atmosphere, shows only one side to its sun and is so hot it glows.
Kepler's ability to take measurements that precise at such a great distance "proves we can find Earth-size planets," William Borucki, Kepler's principal science investigator told reporters at a recent briefing.
The powerful scope is looking at thousands of stars in its vision field in the Milky Way on a 3½-year mission to find planets the size of Earth and to determine how common these planets are.
The planet used in the test, a giant gas planet about the size of Jupiter, orbits a star called HAT P-7 in just 2.2 days and is 26 times closer than Earth is to the sun, according to NASA. It is called an exoplanet because it orbits a star outside the solar system.
Kepler detected the planet's atmosphere, demonstrating the telescope's capabilities and giving astronomers what NASA says is "only a taste of things to come."
"It learned that this planet is like 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That is so hot. And it's 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit just on one side only. The other side would be closer to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, " said Sara Seager, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Kepler science team member.