CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CBS Connecticut) – Astronomers say they have found a massive new type of planet, a rocky world with a diameter 2.3 times that of Earth.
“This is the Godzilla of Earths!” said Dimitar Sasselov, a researcher for Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “But unlike the movie monster, Kepler-10c has positive implications for life.”
The discovery means physicists will have to re-examine theories about how planets form. Scientists had believed such a large rocky planet would trap hydrogen atoms as it grew and turn it into a gas giant, like Jupiter or Saturn.
“We were very surprised when we realized what we had found,” says astronomer Xavier Dumusque, who led the data analysis and made the discovery.
Discovered by the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, this mega-Earth is about 560 light years from our solar system in the constellation Draco. Kepler-10c, circles a sunlike star once every 45 days. The system also hosts a 3-Earth-mass “lava world,” Kepler-10b, which orbits the star in an astonishingly speedy 20 hours.
Scientists think the system is very old, forming less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang. Its early formation suggests that there were enough heavy elements, like silicon and iron, relatively early in the history of the universe, according to the CfA.
The team used the HARPS-North instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands to measure Kepler-10c. They found that it weighed 17 times as much as Earth, far more than expected. This showed that Kepler-10c must have a dense composition of rocks and other solids.
“Kepler-10c didn’t lose its atmosphere over time. It’s massive enough to have held onto one if it ever had it,” explains Dumusque. “It must have formed the way we see it now.”
The discovery has profound implications for the history of the universe and the possibility of life.
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