In a discovery that for astronomers--and the rest of us--may never get old, a new planet, Kepler-453b, has been found orbiting a pair of stars. It is the 10th "circumbinary" planet NASA's Kepler Mission has discovered. Each such planet is orbiting two stars.
What's more, the location of this planet in a "habitable zone" near the stars means that there could be more like it, thinks Stephen Kane, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University, according to a release. The scientists' observations have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
The odds are very much against seeing planets like 453b, because it has an erratic orbit pulled by two stars, and moves "like a spinning top," as Kane mentioned in the release. With the wrong timing, NASA could have simply passed the planet like a ship in a very, very large galaxy: "If we had observed this planet earlier or later than we did, we would have seen nothing and assumed there was no planet there. That suggests that there are a lot more of these kinds of planets than we are thinking, and we're just looking at the wrong time," Kane said in the release.
Because of Kepler 453b's twitchy movements, it is visible to astronomers only 9 percent of the time. If researchers had not found it now, their next opportunity to run across it would have been in 2066.
During the planet's transit, it blocked 0.5 percent of the light from its host stars. This allowed researchers to find that the planet's radius is 6.2 times that of Earth. It is also about 60 percent larger than Neptune. Such a size indicates a gas giant, not a rocky planet; it is unable to support life despite its place in the habitable zone, according to a release.
"But it could have moons that are rocky, which means you could have life on the moons in this system," Kane said in the release.
The first circumbinary system was discovered by the Kepler Mission in 2011.
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