Telescope finds new planetary system

2010-08-26 22:45

Washington - The planet-hunting Kepler space telescope has found a new planetary system orbiting a distant star that could include a planet nearly the same size as Earth, Nasa scientists said on Thursday.

In findings to be published in the journal Science this week, the scientists report the discovery of two large planets about the size of Saturn orbiting a star similar to the sun. A third small object orbiting the star could be a much smaller planet, just a bit larger than Earth.

Earlier this year, Nasa said Kepler had found some 700 candidates for further observation, at least five of which appeared to include more than one possible planet transiting the star.

The news follows an announcement earlier this week that European astronomers have spotted a solar system just 127 light-years from Earth with seven planets orbiting a star, the biggest system found since exoplanetary research began.

The Kepler space telescope launched last year is finely tuned enough to detect Earth-sized planets orbiting distant stars. The $590m telescope programme is to spend at least the next three-and-a-half years pointed at a large swath of the Milky Way galaxy containing about 4.5 million stars.

The most advanced cameras ever used in space will focus on about 100 000 to 150 000 stars deemed most likely to have orbiting planets, scientists said at a pre-launch press briefing. Data from the cameras will be used to find planets by looking for distortions in the light being emitted as an orbiting planet crosses in front of the star.