Illustration of the inferred size of the super-Earth Kepler-10 b (right) in comparison with Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Astronomers have now discovered that one of two planets recently discovered around the sun-like star Kepler-10 – some 560 light years away from Earth, in the constellation Draco – is in fact what has been dubbed a mega-Earth, in that it appears to be something that theoretically should not exist at all, a solid, rocky
NASA report that this planet – Kepler-10c – is around 2.3 times the size of Earth, being about 18,000 miles, far larger than sister planet, Kepler-10b, which of course was the first rocky planet to be found existing beyond our own solar system. Kepler is actually a star far older than our own sun, giving rise to speculation about the ways in which such ancient stars gathered the materials together to form big, rocky planets.
Previous computer simulations had seemed to project that such large planets would be more Neptune-like, or perhaps be similar to gas planets of the outer solar system in that their powerful gravitational fields would have attracted hydrogen and helium in large amounts, during their formation. Yet this newly found exo-planet, has too much mass for that to be the case, being an estimated 17 times heavier than is the earth.
This fact, according to the director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, puts those earlier theories in doubt, leaving the researching scientists baffled still, as to the methodology of planetary formation after stars come into being. Exactly what conditions must exist for rocky planets, and indeed these mega-earth size worlds to form remains something of a puzzle.
Of course, there are definitely implications to be considered, in the search for life beyond Earth, with the finding of another type of rocky planet, as Sassalov noted in commenting that solid planets, as far as scientists are aware – though in truth too little is yet known about the origins of life in the universe, are the places in which it is thought that the chemistry capable of building molecules leading to the emergence of life are most likely to be found.
It was previously assumed that old stars would not possess enough solid material around themselves to allow for the formation of many rocky planets, but this patently a wrong conclusion, so very ancient stars ought never to be discounted as possible hosts for planetary bodies with the same geological make-up as earth.
As astronomers now know only too well, in rest of our Milky Way galaxy alone there exist many planetary systems in all manner of sizes, shapes and forms, so our own” solar system is probably not as unique as we might like to believe. Considering that our own galaxy contains billions of as yet unexplored stars, and that beyond those are billions of other galaxies, the likelihood of much more earth-like planets existing, and supporting life, is astronomically high. #ETPlanets? LifeInSpace? #Exoplanets
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