Tuesday, January 11, 2011
A bit over a day ago the Kepler team notified the world that it would be announcing the discovery of their newest confirmed exoplanet, a discovery that I waited for in slight anticipation but not extensively so, as it didn't seem to hint that this new planet would be something close to the holy grail of exoplanetology: a planet of about our size and mass in the habitable zone of its parent star. Gliese 581 has provided us with a few planets that may be inhabitable, but the jury is still out on which ones are. This new exoplanet doesn't have even a remote chance for life, as it orbits its parent star every 0.8 days (!). It is, however, a rocky (or molten) planet not much larger (but much more massive) than ours, and if it was located in a more pleasant part of its solar system the discovery would have been much more significant...although being a full 560 light years away would have put a bit of a damper on such a discovery as even some of the more fantastic theoretical methods of propulsion out there (nuclear pulse propulsion) wouldn't serve to even send a probe there.
Another good argument for simply spending more money on telescopes, mind you. We're going to find lots of these planets in the next few years orbiting stars that are in our galactic neighborhood but much too far away to reach, and the only way we'll learn about them is by setting up bigger and bigger eyes where we live to watch them.
The close orbit of this planet around its star makes creating drawings to scale quite easy, as they can be to scale both in terms of size and distance. Just like this picture of the Earth and Moon showing the time it takes for light to move from one the other:
Kepler 10-b is 2.5 million km away from its star, one about the same size as the Sun. That makes it easy. Since the Sun has a diameter of 1.4 million km, we'll put this planet about two sun-diameters away from it, and increase the size by a tiny bit. Very quick, so no criticizing my MS Paint skills. Voilà.
Just making this image made my eyes hurt.