University of Leicester scientists using discovery of more than 1,200 alien worlds to understand how solar systems are formed

Posted by pt91 at May 19, 2016 10:28 AM |
Academics from the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy are using NASA data to learn more about the diverse nature of solar systems

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 19 May 2016

• The Kepler space satellite has found more than 2,300 planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way since its launch in 2009

• "Kepler has been a real game-changer,” said Theoretical Astrophysist Dr Richard Alexander

Leicester space scientists are using groundbreaking new information about hundreds of newly discovered exoworlds to help them better understand the evolution of solar systems.

Dr Richard Alexander, a reader in Theoretical Astrophysics, at Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, is using the data by NASA's Kepler space telescope, which last week had confirmed the existence of 1,284 new planets orbiting distant stars.

Of those, nine were judged to have the right conditions for life.

It adds to the 1,041 previously discovered planets that Kepler had already found.

Dr Alexander said the information was vital for helping cosmologists understand how planets are formed in early planetary systems.

He said: "Kepler opened new windows on our knowledge of exoplanets, and found a host of new things that we didn't expect.

"For example, Kepler discovered a new type of planetary system where several planets are seen in very closely-packed orbits - as well as other systems of various types.

"These systems had never been seen prior to Kepler's launch, but we now know that they're actually very common.

"They contain several Earth-to-Neptune-sized planets in very compact configurations – often with five or six such planets all orbiting inside where Mercury lies in the Solar System.

"Packing so many planets so close together is very difficult – the gravity between the planets tends to make the orbits unstable – and the fact that they're common tells us something interesting about how planets and planetary systems are built."

Kepler's ongoing discoveries have changed cosmologists and astronomers' views on how many planets there are in the Universe.

Until the mission launched in 2009, stargazers were baffled as to how many stars were home to orbiting worlds.

Now it is believed that every star in the night sky has at least one exoworld.

Kepler is not only charged with hunting down these alien worlds, but also determining how many of them are habitable – or how many are likely to contain liquid water.

The University of Leicester's Dr Matt Burleigh, reader in observational astronomy, uses NASA's data to study white dwarf stars.

He said: "In this latest announcement astronomers have tried to 'validate' or 'verify' the reality of 1,284 candidate planets using statistical probabilities.

"In each case, they believe there is a 99 per cent probability that the planets is real.

"And nine of them seem to be small enough to be rocky, and exist in the habitable zones of their parent stars. So they might have the right conditions for life."

Dr Alexander added: "Kepler has been a real game-changer for this subject – when it launched we had discovered a few hundred planets outside the solar system – we've now found several thousand."

ends

Notes to editors:

For more information, or for interviews, contact the University of Leicester press office, on 0116 252 2415.

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