NASA Kepler space telescope spies five hidden planets

NASA's star-gazing space telescope Kepler has spotted five new planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system.

The five planets are called "hot Jupiters" because of their deep mass and extreme temperatures, NASA said. They range in size from about the same size as Neptune to larger than Jupiter and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days, NASA stated. The orbs likely have no known living organisms because NASA estimates their temperatures to range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and all five orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

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On station since May 2009, Kepler scans more than 150,000 stars and looks for the signatures of planets by measuring dips in the brightness of stars. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars as seen from Earth, they periodically block the starlight. The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period. Kepler will continue operations until at least November 2012, NASA stated.

Kepler's science instrument, known as a photometer, already has measured hundreds of possible planet signatures that are being analyzed. The telescope's sensitivity to small and large planets enabled the discovery of the planets or exoplanets (since they are outside of our Sun's orbit), are named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b, NASA stated.

The grand prize for Kepler of course would be finding a planet similar to Earth or those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet, according to NASA. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet, NASA stated.

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Last month the Kepler Team successfully completed the third quarterly roll of the spacecraft and another monthly science data download over. All data collected over the last month were successfully delivered to the Science Operations Center at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. About 110 Gigabytes of data was downloaded from last month's observations, NASA stated. This roll of the spacecraft will position the spacecraft in its winter attitude.

NASA has been having great success with its space telescopes of late. Last week its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft popped the cover off its infrared telescope and began "celestial treasure hunt" mission of sending back what will be millions of images of space.

To take still images on the sky as it orbits around Earth, WISE will use what NASA calls a scan mirror to counteract its motion. Light from the moving telescope's primary mirror will be focused onto the scan mirror, which will move in the opposite direction at the same rate. This lets the mission take "freeze-frame" snapshots of the sky every 11 seconds. That's about 7,500 images a day, NASA stated.

The space agency says the WISE spacecraft will circle Earth over the poles, scanning the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months. The idea behind the mission is to uncover objects never seen before, including the coolest stars, the universe's most luminous galaxies and some of the darkest near-Earth asteroids and comets.

This story, "NASA Kepler space telescope spies five hidden planets" was originally published by Network World.

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