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Kepler, Keck Telescopes Discover Earth-Size Exoplanets

Kepler, Keck Telescopes Discover Earth-Size Exoplanets

Credit: Tim Pyle

This 'planet line-up' displays the first two Earth-size extrasolar planets, Kepler-20 e and Kepler-20 f, together with the Earth and Venus, ranked by their size. Kepler-20 f is represented with an atmosphere, since it may possibly have one, while Kepler-20 e is entirely rocky, as it is likely too hot and would have lost its atmosphere to evaporation.

NASA’s Kepler mission, aided by the Keck I Telescope, has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a Sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our Sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius), is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (760 degrees Celsius), would melt glass.

“The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. “This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”

The Kepler-20 system includes three other planets that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Kepler-20b, the closest planet, Kepler-20c, the third planet, and Kepler-20d, the fifth planet, orbit their star every 3.7, 10.9 and 77.6 days, respectively. All five planets have orbits lying roughly within Mercury’s orbit in our solar system. The host star belongs to the same G-type class as our Sun, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

The system has an unexpected arrangement. In our solar system, small, rocky worlds orbit close to the Sun and large, gaseous worlds orbit farther out. In comparison, the planets of Kepler-20 are organized in alternating size: large, small, large, small and large.

Scientists are not certain how the system evolved, but they do not think the planets formed in their existing locations. They theorize the planets formed farther from their star and then migrated inward, likely through interactions with the disk of material from which they originated. This allowed the worlds to maintain their regular spacing despite alternating sizes.

The Kepler space telescope detects planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets crossing in front of, or transiting, their stars. The Kepler science team requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

The Kepler science team then turned to the Keck I Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Keck I telescope’s HIRES instrument (High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer) was used to see if the star has a detectable wobble from the tug of the small planets. This is the way most of Kepler’s planet candidates are confirmed. In the case of Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, no wobble was detected, which means the planets, despite being detected repeatedly transiting in front of the star are very small – in the Earth range – and their tug on their star is very small. 

The star field Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can be seen only from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

To validate Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, astronomers used a computer program called Blender, which runs simulations to help rule out other astrophysical phenomena masquerading as a planet.

On Dec. 5, the team announced the discovery of Kepler-22b in the habitable zone of its parent star, a discovery that also involved Keck telescope data. It is likely to be too large to have a rocky surface. While Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are Earth-size, they are too close to their parent star to have liquid water on the surface.

“In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University. “We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler’s most anticipated discoveries are still to come.”

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. The twin telescopes feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectroscopy and a world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics system which cancels out much of the interference caused by Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. The Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.