Kepler Findings: Multi-Planet Systems Common

In March of 2009, the Nasa Kepler spacecraft was launched. This spacecraft is fitted with the latest telescope technology and during its three and a half year mission, the telescope is planned to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. The launching of the Kepler spacecraft is a result of, and has helped to continue the trend of planet hunting. Plantet hunting astronomers are interested in not only finding planets similar to the Earth, but the ultimate goal is to discover planets with the life-sustaining qualities that the Earth possesses. Kepler is more than two years into its mission and has discovered 1235 planetary candidates, a figure that is quite impressive in itself. The real impressive discoveries to scientists however, are the discoveries of a variety of multi-planet systems.

It was previously believed by scientists that multi-planet systems were a very rare phenomenon. Even though our solar system, which consists of eight planets was able to thrive, it was theorized that this was a common occurrence and most scientists predicted that Kepler would find only a few during its journey. These humble expectations have been smashed, as Kepler has already discovered 408 Earth-like planetary candidates in 171 multiple-planet systems. These starting discoveries have taken place with nearly a third of Kepler’s journey remaining and only the first four months of data analyzed. These facts have led scientist to reevaluate their theories on the frequency of multi-planet systems and there has been an accepted trend that “planets do, in fact, like company.”

While it is true that more than a 150 multi-planet systems have been discovered, there are very few that share in the variation of our solar system. The orbits of planets in our solar system vary by as many as seven degrees, but in most of the cases discovered by Kepler, multiple planets orbit on the same plane. Scientists attribute this difference to the lack of gas giants in their planetary systems. Large, gassy planets, such as Jupiter, disrupt the gravity of our solar system and without the presence of this agitating force, planetary systems remain fairly calm and flat. In fact, most of the multi-planet systems discovered consist of small planets, about the size of Neptune, that have little gravitational influence. Though rare, some planetary systems have been discovered with gas giants present, which explains for the lack of flatness compared to other discovered systems.

Scientists have only begun to analyze the vast amount of data made available by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. With this being said, the discovery of 171 multiple planetary systems is only the beginning of the groundbreaking discoveries. Scientists will continue to do research and intend to release another report next summer. Until that time scientists warn against the dangers of hurried analysis and premature information. The discovery and analysis of the Kepler data has grabbed the attention of many scientists such as William Borucki, David Latham and Geoff Marcy.

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