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  Hot and Heavy in Kepler-11Feb 12, 2011 4:09 AM PST | url
 
Added 1 new A* page:I had storyboarded a line of speech here from Mother sort of narrating things, but just before uploading it I realized that it really *was* just narration, which I try to avoid so as to leave it to you to draw your own conclusions; it can also be kind of a tempting crutch when I'm not certain I'll be able to depict a particular action clearly enough. Hopefully though you can kind of tell what all that stuff appearing in the hallway might be.
 
And now to Science! A recent BBC article describes the discovery of six new exoplanets (that's the kind of silly term that's supposed to mean any planet outside our own solar system) in a single star system by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Kepler is very sensitive to minute changes in light from distant stars, and is designed to find distant planets by looking for the slight dimming of a star as a planet crosses in front of it; it can even detect the wobble of those planets caused by other neighboring planets! Pretty neat. Here's an old NASA painting sort of showing the scale of Kepler's search within our galaxy (hey there's A* in the background--well inside that big glowing galactic nucleus, anyway):
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
Anyway loads and loads of planets have been found around other stars in the past few years by this method, almost all of them most likely "hot Jupiters," ie Jupiter-size or larger gas giants orbiting close to their star: those are just the kind that cast the biggest shadows and are thus easiest to detect by Kepler's transit method. So finding more of those isn't really newsworthy anymore, but this case was slightly more interesting, because the six big gassy planets, around the star cleverly named Kepler-11, 2000 light years from Earth, are all really really close to their sun: five orbit closer to the star than Mercury does to our Sun, and the sixth is just a little farther out than that. Here's a swinky NASA artist's impression of what the inner part of the Kepler-11 system might look like:
 
Image
image by NASA (source)
 
So Kepler-11 sort of rewrites the rules in terms of how much planetary mass can form close to a star; existing theories of solar system formation had tended to assume that planets that big, that close to each other, would tear each other apart, and leave only maybe one or two surviving.
 
This is pretty exciting from a fiction writing point of view, since it opens up all kinds of possibilities for really crazy star systems! Hmmmm... :)
 
 
 
 
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