For the scientists who study planetary systems beyond our own, Easter came a little early this year -- in early February, to be exact. That's when scientists with the Kepler mission handed them a basketful of possible new planets -- about 1200 in all.
Kepler actually spotted the planets during its first four months in orbit, back in 2009. Team members are using telescopes at McDonald Observatory and elsewhere to confirm the discoveries.
Kepler keeps a constant eye on more than 150,000 Sun-like stars in the constellations Lyra and Cygnus. It looks for the brightness of these stars to dip as planets pass in front of the stars, blocking a tiny bit of the stars' light.
Kepler's goal is to find Earth-sized worlds in Earth-like orbits. It'll take another year or two to find and confirm such planets. In the meantime, it's finding many other worlds that are much closer to their parent stars than Earth is to the Sun. Such planets cross in front of their stars every few days or weeks, instead of once every year or so for planets in Earth-like orbits.
The basketful of possible planetary goodies includes 68 worlds that are roughly the size of Earth, and about 300 that are up to twice the size of Earth. All of the others are giants. Most of the planets are far too hot for life as we know it. By studying these planets, though, scientists will learn much more about the processes that give birth to all planets -- including our own.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.