NASA Mission, Texas Astronomers Collaborate to Find Goldilocks Planet, Others

Dec. 6, 2011

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. — NASA has announced the discovery of the first planet located in the "habitable zone" around a star — the "just-right" orbit that's not too hot or too cold for water to exist in liquid form, making life as we know it possible. Astronomers from The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory involved in this and other Kepler research will present their findings at the first Kepler Science Conference this week at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Artist's concept of Kepler-22b. Click the image for a link to download in high resolution. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Kepler is a space telescope launched in 2009 that looks for minute dips in the light from a star that might indicate a planet is passing in front of the star, an event called a "transit." Because other types of phenomena can mimic such a signal, all stars pegged as possible planet hosts by Kepler must be investigated by ground-based telescopes.

To date, 400 candidate stars have been vetted by astronomers at McDonald Observatory — including the “star” of this week’s announcement, Kepler-22. Observations by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Paul Robertson and research scientist Michael Endl eliminated other possible causes of the transit signal using the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Later, other astronomers found that the planet, called Kepler-22b, is just 2.4 times the size of Earth and may be as much as 20 times Earth's mass.

"As planet hunters, we have speculated for decades that our observations reveal only the tip of the iceberg, the giant planets that are easy to find," Endl said. "Kepler shows us now the rest of the iceberg with its large population of smaller planets. And Kepler is not done yet. The most exciting discoveries are still to come."

The Kepler team at McDonald Observatory includes Bill Cochran (a co-investigator of the Kepler mission), collaborators Michael Endl and Phillip MacQueen, graduate students Paul Robertson and Erik Brugamyer, and undergraduate Caroline Caldwell.

At the conference, Cochran will discuss Kepler-18, the multiplanet system he studied that was found to have at least three planets orbiting very close, with the outer two, Neptune-mass planets, orbiting near resonance with each other.

Endl will be announcing the first Kepler planet confirmed by the 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. The subject of Endl's announcement is Kepler-15b, a "hot Jupiter." That's a massive planet orbiting extremely close to its parent star. Endl's findings suggest the planet is unusually rich in heavy chemical elements — 30 or 40 times as much as Earth. The team has also used HET to confirm the planet Kepler-17b and four additional Kepler planets, including a double-planet system, that will be published soon.

In the future, HET will be an even more powerful tool for Kepler follow-up. HET will undergo a major upgrade beginning in March 2012.

"We will gain a very large improvement in efficiency of the instrument," Endl said. Once the upgrade is complete, "we will charge ahead into the field of very low mass planets, Neptunes or super-Earths," he said.

Established in 1932, The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas, hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (a joint project of The University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Georg-August-Universität Göttingen). An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope.

NASA’s Ames Research Center manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters.

For more information, contact: Rebecca Johnson, McDonald Observatory, College of Natural Sciences, 512 475 6763; Bill Cochran, 512-471-6474; Michael Endl, 512-471-8312.

15 Comments to "NASA Mission, Texas Astronomers Collaborate to Find Goldilocks Planet, Others"

1.  Roy Tassava said on Dec. 6, 2011

I'm wondering how far this Goldilock's planet is from Earth. Also, can we assume that this earth-like planet formed (originated) at about the time earth did? If there is life, it might be that it is evolutionarily far beyond our's or, alternatively, far behind our's. The significance of extra-terrestrial life is no small matter!

2.  Cathy O'Rourke said on Dec. 6, 2011

I would just like to know are your observations were discussed on Irish radio this morning. They mentioned the Kepler satellite which is helping you but are you using ground based telescopes also? I would have always concluded that us humans would be extremely arrogant to think we are the only planet with "life" in the universe. Lets hope that if there is life on other planets that they treat their planets better than we do ours. Keep up the good work. Cathy

3.  Harry Fog (Aussie) said on Dec. 7, 2011

How exciting to find a goldilocks planet that may be rocky and have life forms (congratulations to everyone ) could someone speculate as to what intelligent life may look like either carbon based or some other type of chemical thanks. Harry

4.  Jay McPherson said on Dec. 7, 2011

I would just like to congratulate everyone on their findings. :)
-J. Bryant McPherson

5.  Cody Ebtesam said on Dec. 7, 2011

I agree with Harry Fog. Splendid Stuff.

6.  jess said on Dec. 8, 2011

did you find any life on it

7.  will said on Dec. 8, 2011

@ roy i read that it is 600m light years away, lets hope they are beyond us and sent an envoy to us like 600 years ago (assuming near light speed is possible)

8.  Harry Caray said on Dec. 9, 2011

The planet is a little less than 600 light-years away; it is relatively nearby in our Galaxy, but still very far away. We have no clue of when it formed in comparison with the Earth.

9.  Greg Gordon said on Dec. 15, 2011

Let's make a leap and say that the development of life is inevitable on planets that are cool enough to have liquid water. Let's make another and say that our own experience shows that intelligent life will evolve where ever life is present. Can we then develop a method by direct observation for recognizing the presence of an advanced society, a unique hallmark of civilization.

10.  Doogyman said on Dec. 15, 2011

If the mass is 20 times that of earth, the planets gravity will also be much stronger than ours. Any higher life forms would be short, stout and very muscular.

11.  Dave Rusin said on Dec. 15, 2011

@Greg, Clearly the unique hallmark of civilization would be a tower that's lit Burnt Orange :-)

12.  wiz said on Dec. 19, 2011

it's amazing discovery in astronomy, is there any life in this goldilocks planet?

13.  Anna Pope said on Dec. 20, 2011

This article is a little misleading... Kepler-22b is not the first "Goldilocks" planet to be found but the one most probable to be able to support water. There have been other planets spotted by NASA and other space programs using telescopes in Chile, but, because of their distance from our solar system and current technology, we have no way of figuting out whether or not water does in fact exist on these planets. Great job to the students and scientist who found Kepler-22b. Who knows, maybe the next one will be closer than we expect.

14.  Bill Shore said on Dec. 25, 2011

With the weight, 20 times earth, they should keep hydrogen whereas we are losing H2 and making more O2, right?

15.  sunanda said on Jan. 30, 2012

before kepler i would discover it