Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Planets pose for family portraits

Two years after its launch, NASA's Kepler space telescope has detected more than 1,200 potential planets circling distant stars by tracking the slight dimming of starlight. This graphic, drawn up by Kepler science team member Jason Rowe, shows all 1,235 worlds in proper proportion to their respective stars. Some of the stars are thought to have multiple planets.

The stars' sizes range from 6.1 times larger than our sun to just a third as wide. For comparison's sake, Rowe has included our own sun, off by itself beneath the top row. Jupiter appears as a speck in silhouette, and Earth is an even more minuscule speck. The colors of each star reflect how it would look if we could see it up close, outside Earth's atmosphere.

Nearly all of these candidates have yet to be confirmed as planets rather than binary-star companions or computer glitches. Kepler's scientists expect that 80 to 90 percent of them will turn out to be honest-to-goodness exoplanets. They also expect to find more candidates as the mission continues, including some specks as tiny as Earth.


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