A New Class of Exoplanet
An Exoplanet is said to be a planet situated outside the Solar system. On Jan. 2013, Astronomers announced that there might be as many as 400 billion exoplanets in the ‘Milky Way Galaxy.’ On Feb. 2014, NASA’s Kepler space telescope was said to have verified 715 exoplanets posited around 305 Stars. Most earlier confirmed planets were gas giants like the size of Jupiter, but the Kepler planets had the size of Earth or Neptune. The discovery of such exoplanets also intensified the search of extraterrestrial life, particularly those exoplanets that orbit around the host star’s habitable zone (suitable for liquid water).
The Kepler Space Telescope recently turned up a surprise, as last week, the researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found a giant rocky planet (named Kepler 10-C) 17 times more massive than the Earth. At first, scientists marked it as a gas giant, but after observing a lot they found that the planet isn’t gaseous at all — it’s a massive rocky planet. Now called as ‘Godzilla of Earths’, ‘mega-Earth’, the planet’s discovery has made scientists to rethink their ideas on planet formation and the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life in our galaxy.
The ‘Kepler 10-C’ is estimated to be 560 light-years away from Earth and orbits its star every 45 days, making it too hot (surface temperature 310C) for any possibility of life. But, considering the fact that the planet is solid (and a cloudy sky), scientists believe that it may have an atmosphere that may be capable of supporting life. According to the current planet formation theories, such a planet is expected not to have existed. Additionally, the rocky Kepler-10c formed about 11 billion years ago (formed only 3 Billion years after Big Bang – that flung our universe into being), making it an old system with old stars. The rocky structure of the planet also indicates that the heavy elements needed to make such rocky planets were available in the galaxy, earlier than thought.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has also stated that, ‘if there may be more old habitable planets, it may increase the chances of life being found elsewhere in the universe.’ Natalie Batalha – NASA’s Kepler mission scientist said in a news release, “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, nature gives you a huge surprise – in this case, literally.”
Who knows what other possibilities the space holds for us, mankind. Until the next surprise, we have to stumble along, constructing our own perceived certainties or theories to find out why we are here or where we are?