Scientists Discover Earth-Like Planetary System

Represents a Huge Step Forward in Finding a Second Earth

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on November 30, 2013 11:27 AM EST

Credit: NASA/JPL
Credit: NASA/JPL

A team of European astrophysicists has discovered a unique planetary system that bears a striking resemblance to our own. At least seven planets circle the star KOI-351, a close comparison to the 8 planets which circle our own sun (if you recall, International Astronomical Union scientists downgraded Pluto from full planet to dwarf planet status).

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Credit: DLR Press Release
Credit: DLR Press Release

KOI-351 gets its name from Kepler Object of Interest, which means that the star was initially observed by NASA's Kepler space telescope and classified as a candidate for the potential existence of an exoplanet or a planet located outside of our own solar system. The Kepler telescope is a space observatory that was launched by NASA in March 2009 with the mission of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. It continued its mission until May of this year, when the second of its four orientation-maintaining wheels failed, eliminating the space craft's ability to orient itself.

Three of the KOI-351's planets had previously been identified. What Juan Cabrera, an astrophysicist at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof and his team were able to uncover is the presence of four additional planets, which in total is what makes KOI-351 so unique.

"We cannot stress just how important this discovery is. It is a big step in the search for a 'twin' to the Solar System, and thus also in finding a second Earth," said Cabrera in an article published in the Astrophysical Journal. "No other planetary system shows such a similar 'architecture' to that of our cosmic home as does the planetary system around KOI-351," says Cabrera. "Just as in the Solar System, rocky planets with roughly the size of Earth are found close to the star, while, 'gas giants' similar to Jupiter and Saturn are found as you move away from the star." Cabrera's colleague, Heike Rauer, head of the Extrasolar Planets and Atmospheres working group at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, and professor at the Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Berlin, adds: "The discovery of this complex planetary system helps us to better understand the processes that give rise to such planetary systems."

The team was able to discover the additional planets thanks to a new computer algorithm which helped them filter out the light curves that reveal the paths of a planet across its parent star. It's a development that is poised to be crucial in the search for similar planets from other space telescopes, and in seeking to find an answer to the question,  "Are we alone in the universe?" which drives our imaginations and so much of space research. 

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