Kepler telescope spies 'mega-Earth'

"This is the Godzilla of Earths!" said Dimitar Sasselov.
By Brooks Hays   |   June 2, 2014 at 4:57 PM

BOSTON, June 2 (UPI) -- NASA's Kepler telescope has helped astronomers located another exoplanet, and its a big one. So big, in fact, that scientists had to create a new category to house it. At 17-times the mass of Earth, Kepler's latest discovery is the only "mega-Earth."

Scientists have previously discovered "super-Earths," planets roughly ten-times the mass of Earth. But most astronomers assumed planets any bigger would be gas giants like Jupiter.

But Kepler-10c -- announced Monday at the 224th American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston -- isn't gaseous, it's rocky.

"This is the Godzilla of Earths!" said Dimitar Sasselov, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. "But unlike the movie monster, Kepler-10c has positive implications for life."

The exoplanet boasts a diameter of about 18,000 miles, which makes it 2.3-times bigger than Earth. But Kepler-10c weighs 17 times as much, thanks to its super dense rocky core.

The researchers at CfA -- who use information collected by Kepler to find and study potential life-sustaining exoplanets -- say Kepler-10c and the rest of its solar system is roughly 11 billion years old, meaning it formed less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

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

Still, Kepler-10c itself is highly unlikely to harbor living organisms. It's much too close to its parent star, a red dwarf that lies 560 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Draco. The surface of Kepler-10c is likely roasted from its close proximity to its sun.

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