Monday, June 2, 2014

'Godzilla of Earths' identified

There is a new class of planet out there that astronomers are calling the 'mega-Earth'.

It is an object with a hard surface like our own world but much, much bigger.

The necessity for the new designation follows the discovery of a planet which has a mass some 17 times that of Earth.

Known as Kepler-10c, it orbits a star about 560 light-years away. Scientists described its properties at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston.

They confess it is something of a head-scratcher.

Theorists had always thought that any planet that large would pull so much hydrogen on to itself that it would look more like a Neptune or a Jupiter.

'We were very surprised when we realised what we had found,' said Xavier Dumusque of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), who led the research team.

'This is the Godzilla of Earths!' added the CfA's Dimitar Sasselov, the director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. 'But unlike the movie monster, Kepler-10c has positive implications for life.'

Kepler-10c, as the name suggests, was detected by the US space agency's Kepler telescope.

This finds new worlds by looking for the tiny dip in light as they pass in front of their parent stars.

The technique gives a diameter - in this case, 29,000km, or just over two times the width of Earth - but not a mass.

For that, astronomers looked at 10c with the Harps-North instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.

It extracts a mass measurement by examining the gravitational interaction between the planet and its host star.

Combined with the diameter, the mass number showed that Kepler-10c cannot be a gaseous world but must comprise very dense material.

Interestingly, the age of the host star is about 11 billion years old, which is early in the evolution of the Universe when generations of exploding stars have not had long to make the heavy elements needed to construct rocky planets.

'Finding Kepler-10c tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought. And if you can make rocks, you can make life,' says Prof Sasselov.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter.