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Kepler basks in its success

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

It was all things exoplanets this morning at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in Washington, DC.

It’s quite amazing what NASA’s planet hunter – the Kepler mission – has managed to find. So far, in data released in February, the Kepler probe has discovered 1235 planet candidates. 68 of them are Earth-sized planets with 54 thought to be in the habitable zone of a star – an orbit that is not too close or far away from the star so the conditions are ideal for life.

Maybe one of the most interesting potential planets is “KOI 326.01”. It is actually smaller than Earth and is in the habitable zone of its star. However, like most of the planets Kepler has so far spotted, the planet has yet to be confirmed.

When asked further about the planet, William Borucki, from the NASA Ames Research Centre, who gave an overview of the mission, would not single it out for special attention.

The next speaker in the session was Matthew Holman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, who told delegates that Kepler has found 45 three-planet systems, eight systems with four planets in them, one with five and one with six planets.

Even though Kepler will be studying exoplanets for another three years, astronomers are also thinking about what comes next.

Sara Seager from MIT is planning to send a host of Cubesats into orbit in the next few years to study exoplanets. These small-sized satellites – each around 20 × 20 × 20 cm – would each study a single star to look for planets orbiting them.

Only a few years ago, exoplanet science was thought of as a “cottage industry” according to Seager. “No-one thought how dominating the field of exoplanet research would now be,”she says. As the planets found by Kepler are confirmed and studied further over the coming years, that dominance is likely to continue.

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