Kepler has discovered 11 new “solar systems” with 26 confirmed planets among them. They:
- Range from 1.5 Earths in radius to bigger than Jupiter
- 15 are between Earth and Neptune in size
- They have years ranging from 6 to 143 days.
Their rockiness or gaseousness remains unassessed to date.
Also of interest is the number of transiting planets. Transiting planets are often how they find these systems to begin with; When a planet passes in front of its star (from our persepctive) we can detect it. There are a number of things that can be measured for these planets which eventually lead to a better understanding of what they are.
Each of the newly confirmed planetary systems contains two to five closely spaced transiting planets. In tightly packed planetary systems, the gravitational pull of the planets on each other causes some planets to accelerate and some to decelerate along their orbits. The acceleration causes the orbital period of each planet to change. Kepler detects this effect by measuring the changes, or so-called Transit Timing Variations.
Planetary systems with Transit Timing Variations can be verified without requiring extensive ground-based observations, accelerating confirmation of planet candidates. This detection technique also increases Kepler’s ability to confirm planetary systems around fainter and more distant stars.
“By precisely timing when each planet transits its star, Kepler detected the gravitational tug of the planets on each other, clinching the case for 10 of the newly announced planetary systems,” said Dan Fabrycky, Hubble Fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author for a paper confirming Kepler-29, 30, 31 and 32.
Five of the systems (Kepler-25, Kepler-27, Kepler-30, Kepler-31 and Kepler-33) contain a pair of planets where the inner planet orbits the star twice during each orbit of the outer planet. Four of the systems (Kepler-23, Kepler-24, Kepler-28 and Kepler-32) contain a pairing where the outer planet circles the star twice for every three times the inner planet orbits its star.
“These configurations help to amplify the gravitational interactions between the planets, similar to how my sons kick their legs on a swing at the right time to go higher,” said Jason Steffen, the Brinson postdoctoral fellow at Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill., and lead author of a paper confirming Kepler-25, 26, 27 and 28.
Kepler-33, a star that is older and more massive than our sun, had the most planets. The system hosts five planets, ranging in size from 1.5 to 5 times that of Earth. All of the planets are located closer to their star than any planet is to our sun.
The properties of a star provide clues for planet detection. The decrease in the star’s brightness and duration of a planet transit combined with the properties of its host star present a recognizable signature. When astronomers detect planet candidates that exhibit similar signatures around the same star, the likelihood of any of these planet candidates being a false positive is very low.
“The approach used to verify the Kepler-33 planets shows the overall reliability is quite high,” said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper on Kepler-33. “This is a validation by multiplicity.”