NASA: Kepler telescope spots five planets outside solar system

Agency hopes space telescope starts finding earth-like planets within three years

A NASA space telescope searching the heavens for Earth-like planets has discovered five orbs outside of our solar system.

But don't start packing your bags just yet.

With temperatures hotter than molten lava, NASA said the planets are uninhabitable.

"These observations contribute 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," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center, in a statement. "The discoveries also show that our science instrument is working well. Indications are that Kepler will meet all its science goals."

NASA launched the Kepler space telescope in March, 2009. The craft, on a six-year mission to find Earth-like planets, is carrying a telescope and multiple computers. Last year, Kepler program manager James Fanson, told Computerworld that NASA scientists expect Kepler to find large planets during its first several months in space.

And in two to three years, Fanson added, the craft should begin to spot planets closer to the size of Earth.

The Kepler spacecraft is designed to study between 100,000 and 170,000 sunlike stars and find Earth-like planets orbiting them. The telescope onboard the spacecraft will measure the brightness of those stars every half hour, allowing scientists to detect any dimming that would be caused by orbiting planets passing in front of them.

Scientists expect to receive enough data from Kepler to determine not only the size of a planet but to be able to detect whether it has a solid surface and if there's the potential for it to have water, which is crucial to the formation of life.

NASA reported this week that Kepler spotted its first five exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system.

The planets, which range in size from smaller than Neptune to larger than Jupiter, have temperatures reading between 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.

"It's gratifying to see the first Kepler discoveries rolling off the assembly line," said Jon Morse, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division, in a statement. "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog."

Sharon Gaudin covers Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies and desktop/laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter @sgaudin, send e-mail at sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .

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