Truth turns out to be far stranger than science fiction as Nasa Kepler space telescope discovers weird planets

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Some planets have turned out to be nearly as small as the Moon, while others are several times the size of Jupiter

The truth is out there, but when it comes to the search for other planets beyond our Solar System the truth has turned out to be far stranger than science fiction.

Scientists looking for habitable “exoplanets” similar to Earth are astounded by the shear range and diversity of the weird worlds orbiting distant stars – some shining like diamonds, others as black as coal.

“We are finding an absolutely enormous range of planet types. It has come as quite a surprise,” said William Borucki of Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in Moffat Field, California, the principal investigator on the Kepler Mission to find habitable planets beyond our Solar System.

Among them is one that resembles Tatooine, the home of Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker. Kepler-16b, has two suns setting over the horizon instead of just one but in this case it has not thought to be habitable.

The Kepler space telescope, launched four years ago, has scoured the sky for the faint twinkles of starlight caused as a distant planet passes across the face of its star.

Kepler has so far identified 2,740 possible exoplanets, with confirmed planet discoveries numbering 114 to date. Up to 90 per cent of the possible candidate planets are likely to be confirmed eventually, Dr Borucki said.

Although there are about 350 exoplanets about the size of Earth, none so far has been found in the “habitable zone”, otherwise known as the Goldilocks distance from a star, where it is not too hot, nor too cold for liquid water, and hence life, to exist.

“We are beginning to find planetary systems with more than one planet orbiting a star, and so far they are all rather different to our own Solar System,” Dr Borucki said.

“There are about 40 to 50 planetary candidates in the habitable zone but there are no Earth-sized planets there. We have not yet found Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” he said.

Analysis of the planetary orbits, motions and spectra of light absorbed by a planet’s atmosphere have revealed a remarkably range of planets – far more than theoreticians had predicted at the start of the mission, Dr Borucki said.

While some planets are as dense as iron, with oceans of molten metal, others appear to be feather-light heavenly bodies composed of gaseous or rarefied material, he said.

“We have found a planet with the density of Styrofoam. It would float in the ocean, in fact, with most of it sticking out of the water. Since then we have found a planet with half that density, so the range of densities is just beyond belief,” Dr Borucki said.

“We are finding planets that are just a little bigger than Earth but with the density of iron. It is orbiting very close to its star, with an orbiting time of less than one day. It is so hot it must be molten, so it must have oceans of lava or possibly molten iron,” he said.

Some planets have turned out to be nearly as small as the Moon, while others are several times the size of Jupiter – the biggest planet in the Solar System – which has defied conventional logic of how planet’s form, Dr Borucki said.

“We are finding planets bigger than Jupiter, which is a surprise in that it was believed that planets could not be larger than Jupiter because if you add mass to a planet we thought it would just get denser, not bigger,” Dr Borucki said yesterday at a conference at the Royal Society in London.

“We are finding planets that are two or three times the size of Jupiter, and Jupiter is the size of a small star so we are finding planets as big as stars….We have found that planets can get bigger by some process and we don’t understand that process,” he said.

Some planets are orbiting their stars together, which theory suggests would demand that they have similar densities. But scientists have found two closely-orbiting planets with very different densities – one is made of rock while the other is composed of gas.

“What that tells you is that our concept of how planetary systems, based on how our own Solar System is put together, is probably not applicable for many of these other solar systems,” Dr Borucki said.

Even the orbits of the exoplanets have proven to be unconventional. Before Kepler, most planetary scientists thought that rocky planets like Earth would orbit close to their star, while gaseous planets such as Jupiter would orbit further out – but large gas planets have been found in very close orbits to their stars.

“We have found everything different from what people had predicted, other than one of the predictions which was that during the formation of a star a planet could form,” Dr Borucki said.

“That was quite right. There are lots and lots of planets but the orbits are not where we expected them to be,” he said.

“We are seeing or will see thousands of planets, so our expectations are reasonably consistent at this stage of the game.

“But does this huge number of planets imply life? We can’t tell that. We haven’t found an Earth in the habitable zone. So we don’t know whether there are other Earths out there at this point,” he said.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform