Invisible alien planet discovered

Last Updated: Monday, September 12, 2011 - 18:05

Washington: For the first time, scientists
claim to have definitively discovered an "invisible" alien
planet whose gravity affects the orbit of another neighbouring
planet.

Both the planets, known as Kepler-19b and Kepler-19c,
were detected by NASA`s Kepler space telescope which was
launched in 2009 with an aim to hunt for alien worlds.

First, Kepler spotted 19b as it passed in front of, or
transited, its host star. Then, scientists inferred the
existence of 19c after observing that 19b`s transits
periodically came a little later or earlier than expected. The
gravity of 19c tugs on 19b, changing its orbit.

The discovery of Kepler-19c, the researchers said, marks
the first time this method, known as transit timing variation
or TTV, has robustly found an exoplanet.

"My expectation is that this method will be applied
dozens of times, if not more, for other candidates in the
Kepler mission," said lead researcher Sarah Ballard of the
Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge,
Massachusetts.

The Kepler spacecraft typically hunts for alien worlds by
measuring the telltale dips in a star`s brightness caused when
a planet crosses the star`s face from the telescope`s
perspective, blocking some of its light.

It has been incredibly successful using this so-called
transit method, spotting 1,235 candidate alien planets in its
first four months of operation. That`s the way it detected
Kepler-19b -- a world 650 light-years away from Earth in the
constellation Lyra.

The researchers, who reported their findings in The
Astrophysical Journal, said Kepler-19b has a diameter about
2.2 times that of Earth, and orbits 13.5 million km from its
parent star. It likely has a surface temperature around 900
degrees Fahrenheit (482 degrees Celsius).

Kepler-19b transits its host star once every nine days
and seven hours. But that number isn`t constant, Ballard and
her team found; transits can occur up to five minutes early or
five minutes late.

That variation told them another planet was tugging on
19b, alternately speeding it up and slowing it down.
Researchers know little about Kepler-19c at the moment.
It takes the alien world 160 days or less to zip around its
host star, and 19c`s mass could range from a few times that of
Earth to six times that of Jupiter, the researchers said.
But 19c should start coming into clearer focus soon.

"It`s a mystery world, but of course we don`t expect it
to remain a mystery," study co-author David Charbonneau, also
of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said.

"Kepler, and large ground-based telescopes, should help
us figure out its true identity soon enough!"

PTI



First Published: Monday, September 12, 2011 - 18:05

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