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Planet Bonanza

August 23, 2014

The Summer Triangle is one of the skywatching treats of the season. Its stars are among the brightest in the night sky, so they’re visible even from light-polluted cities. And they bound a region that’s yielded more than a thousand confirmed exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than the Sun.

That’s mainly because that region of the sky was the target for Kepler, a planet-hunting space telescope. In four years of searching, it discovered more than 5,000 possible planets there. About a thousand have been confirmed, with the rest awaiting follow-up observations from the ground.

Kepler’s list of discoveries includes the first Earth-size planet found in its star’s habitable zone — the distance from the star where temperatures are just right for liquid water.

The list also includes star systems with as many as six planets, planets that orbit two stars, and planets that are so close to their stars that radiation is vaporizing their atmospheres; we’ll talk about a system with two of these doomed planets tomorrow.

Kepler’s pointing system failed last year, so it can no longer maintain its gaze on the Summer Triangle. It can lock onto a patch of sky for a few weeks, though, so it’s hopscotching around the sky in search of more new worlds.

The Summer Triangle is high in the east at nightfall. Its brightest star, Vega, is high overhead, with Deneb to its lower left and Altair farther to the lower right — outlining a zone with lots of planets.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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