January 9, 2014
Newly Found Planet
Do you remember the first time that you learned that the stars in the sky were actually suns? For me, it happened when I was very little. I remember looking up at all of those twinkling lights hovering over my grandparent’s farmhouse and thinking to myself how incredible it would be if each of those stars had an Earth, just like ours; a planet full of life in all of its countless and wondrous forms. Of course, the question of “are we alone in the universe” has been pondered for some time now, and continues to be one of the many driving forces in astronomical research. And although we have yet to find any little green men with ray-guns or world devouring super-beings (sorry, Lovecraft), we have managed to discover some pretty neat stuff. Stuff like KOI-314c.
KOI-314c is a newly discovered planet that was found by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, or rather, by the data that Kepler has sent back. The research team was not looking to discover new planets, but were looking for exomoons in their Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project. Upon realizing what they had found, the team was very quick to learn all that they could about this new world. As it turns out, KOI-314c is an Earth-weight planet, although it sits at nearly 60 percent bigger than Earth is. How? Well, do you remember Lava World? Well, think of KOI-314c as “Gas World.” Estimates put the planet at only 30 percent more dense than water, showing it to be much less solid than what most of us typically imagine planets to be. It also likely has a very dense atmosphere, which also accounts for its surprising size-to-weight ratio. KOI-314c orbits a somewhat dim, red dwarf star that is located nearly 200 light-years from Earth. Its orbit around the star takes it only 23 days. The estimated average temperature of the planet is said to be at around 220 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far too hot for the planet to sustain any sort of life that we are aware of. All in all, this is still a remarkable discovery.
What is likewise remarkable is the new technique used to measure KOI-314c. The researchers were able to gather information regarding the planet’s weight and mass by using transit timing variations, or TTV. This method was first successfully used back in 2010 and, thanks to KOI-314c, the research team has shown just how efficient the system is. TTV can be used when there is more than one planet orbiting a star. It focuses on the gravitational pull that the planets have on each other each time they pass, slightly changing their orbit times.
A new world found. A hidden spot of our reality unveiled. How does it not get more wondrous than that? Our universe is vast and seemingly infinite, and yet each achievement like this feels like such a milestone. The more we know about what all exists out there, beyond our world, the more we realize just how much there is out there for us to find.
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