Today’s weather forecast is patchy clouds – on exoplanet Kepler-7b

Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT
Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right).
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT

Patchy clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. That is the current weather forecast, not for anywhere on Earth, but for a much more distant world in another solar system. For the first time, astronomers have been able to map cloud patterns on such a far-away exoplanet, it was announced on September 30, 2013.

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Can Kepler be saved? Engineering team to attempt recovery of ailing space telescope

Artist's illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel
Artist’s illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

The Kepler space telescope has been nothing short of incredible, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets and showing just how common and diverse they really are (as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction). Recently, however, additional mechanical problems have started plaguing the mission, threatening to cut it short. The news during the past few weeks has been pessimistic, declaring that Kepler’s planet-hunting days are all but over. But there is still hope, as announced by the mission’s engineering team, that further testing later this month can help to resolve the situation.

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Three new possibly habitable ‘super-Earth’ planets discovered

Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth. Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech
Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth.
Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

There is some more exciting news from the Kepler space telescope mission – as announced in a NASA press briefing this morning, three more planets have been detected orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. Larger planets have been found already in this zone around various stars, but what makes this newest discovery so compelling is that these new planets are the smallest found so far in this zone, so-called “super-Earths.” Two of them may even be covered by oceans!

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Astronomers estimate 4.5 billion ‘Earth-like’ planets in our galaxy

There are now estimated to be about 4.5 billion "Earth-like" planets orbiting red dwarf stars in our galaxy. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
There are now estimated to be about 4.5 billion “Earth-like” planets orbiting red dwarf stars in our galaxy. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

There was more exciting exoplanet-related news this morning – a team of astronomers announced a new study today which estimates that there are likely about 4.5 billion “Earth-like” planets in our galaxy!

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Billions of planets in our galaxy

Astronomers now estimate that there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone.Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Astronomers now estimate that there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The new year has barely begun, and already it has been a good one for exoplanets. In a previous update, it was reported that the Kepler space telescope has added hundreds of exoplanet candidates to its rapidly growing list. That is exciting enough, but another new study now, similar to other ones, estimates that there are billions of other planets in our galaxy alone.

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Kepler space telescope discovers 461 new exoplanet candidates

Diagram showing the current number of Kepler exoplanetary candidates, listed by size. The numbers of candidates which are Earth-size and super-Earth-size have increased by 43% and 21% since the last update in 2012. Credit: NASA

The Kepler space telescope has added hundreds of more exoplanet candidates to its already long and ever-growing list, it was announced today. There is now a current total of 2,740 planetary candidates, orbiting 2,036 stars.

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Kepler gets mission extension in its search for Earth-like worlds

Timeline depicting major milestones during the Kepler mission so far.
Credit: NASA Ames Research Center / W. Stenzel

To say that the Kepler mission has been successful so far would be a major understatement – with 2,321 exoplanet candidates and 105 confirmed exoplanets to date, Kepler has revolutioned our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. Not all that long ago it wasn’t even known if any planets existed outside our solar system, and now they are being discovered on a regular basis.

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Tatooine times two: Kepler space telescope finds a planet with four suns

Artist’s concepton of PH1 orbiting the two closest binary stars, with the second pair of stars farther out. Credit: Haven Giguere / Yale

Until recently, astronomers only knew about exoplanets which, like those in our own solar system, orbited a single star. Then, the first one was discovered which orbits two stars, much like Tatooine in the Star Wars films. Since then, other similar planets have been found, indicating that such circumbinary planets (those which orbit double stars) may be fairly common.

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41 new exoplanets confirmed by Kepler space telescope

Illustration of the newly confirmed exoplanets (in green) along with additional unconfirmed planets in the same solar systems (in violet). Credit: Jason Steffen, Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics

The number of confirmed exoplanets found by the Kepler space telescope has increased again, by 41. The planets, which orbit 20 different stars, range in size from about the same size as Earth to more than seven times Earth’s radius.

The results come from two new studies of the Kepler data; the papers are still in the process of being peer-reviewed, but the new discoveries should increase significantly the number of confirmed exoplanets found by Kepler so far. Currently, that number stands at 77, with 2,321 additional candidates awaiting confirmation.

See Examiner.com for the full article.