Six small planets orbiting a sun-like star amaze astronomers

A remarkable planetary system discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission has six planets around a Sun-like star, including five small planets in tightly packed orbits. Astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and their coauthors analyzed the orbital dynamics of the system, determined the sizes and masses of the planets, and figured out their likely compositions–all based on Kepler’s measurements of the changing brightness of the host star (called Kepler-11) as the planets passed in front of it.

“Not only is this an amazing planetary system, it also validates a powerful new method to measure the masses of planets,” said Daniel Fabrycky, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Cruz, who led the orbital dynamics analysis. Fabrycky and Jack Lissauer, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, are the lead authors of a paper on Kepler-11 published in the February 3 issue of Nature.

The five inner planets in the Kepler-11 system range in size from 2.3 to 13.5 times the mass of the Earth. Their orbital periods are all less than 50 days, so they orbit within a region that would fit inside the orbit of Mercury in our solar system. The sixth planet is larger and farther out, with an orbital period of 118 days and an undetermined mass.

“Of the six planets, the most massive are potentially like Neptune and Uranus, but the three lowest mass planets are unlike anything we have in our solar system,” said Jonathan Fortney, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

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