NASA’s Kepler mission discovers 715 new planets

February 27, 2014

The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Kepler mission announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets (planets outside our solar system).

“The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.”

New statistical technique for verifying planets

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star.

To verify this bounty of planets, a research team co-led by Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., analyzed stars with more than one potential planet, all of which were detected in the first two years of Kepler’s observations — May 2009 to March 2011.

The research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability. Kepler observes 150,000 stars, and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.

These multiple-planet systems are fertile grounds for studying individual planets and the configuration of planetary neighborhoods. This provides clues to planet formation.

Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water.

One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

This latest discovery brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to nearly 1,700. The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal and are available for download.


Abstract of arXiv paper (Jack J. Lissauer et al.)

We extend the statistical analysis of Lissauer et al. (2012, ApJ 750, 112), which demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Kepler candidate multiple transiting systems (multis) represent true transiting planets, and develop therefrom a procedure to validate large numbers of planet candidates in multis as bona fide exoplanets. We show that this statistical framework correctly estimates the abundance of false positives already identified around Kepler targets with multiple sets of transit-like signatures based on their abundance around targets with single sets of transit-like signatures. We estimate the number of multis that represent split systems of one or more planets orbiting each component of a binary star system. We use the high reliability rate for multis to validate more than one dozen particularly interesting multi-planet systems are validated in a companion paper by Rowe et al. (2014, ApJ, this issue). We note that few very short period (P < 1.6 days) planets orbit within multiple transiting planet systems and discuss possible reasons for their absence. There also appears to be a shortage of planets with periods exceeding a few months in multis.

Abstract of arXiv paper (Jason F. Rowe et al.)

The Kepler mission has discovered over 2500 exoplanet candidates in the first two years of spacecraft data, with approximately 40% of them in candidate multi-planet systems. The high rate of multiplicity combined with the low rate of identified false-positives indicates that the multiplanet systems contain very few false-positive signals due to other systems not gravitationally bound to the target star (Lissauer, J. J., et al., 2012, ApJ 750, 131). False positives in the multi- planet systems are identified and removed, leaving behind a residual population of candidate multi-planet transiting systems expected to have a false-positive rate less than 1%. We present a sample of 340 planetary systems that contain 851 planets that are validated to substantially better than the 99% confidence level; the vast majority of these have not been previously verified as planets. We expect ~2 unidentified false-positives making our sample of planet very reliable. We present fundamental planetary properties of our sample based on a comprehensive analysis of Kepler light curves and ground-based spectroscopy and high-resolution imaging. Since we do not require spectroscopy or high-resolution imaging for validation, some of our derived parameters for a planetary system may be systematically incorrect due to dilution from light due to additional stars in the photometric aperture. None the less, our result nearly doubles the number of verified exoplanets.

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