Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

November 15, 1996

Searching For Solar Systems
Credit: Ball Aerospace, The Kepler Mission, NASA/Ames Research Centre

Explanation: Observational astronomy has recently provided evidence of the existence of massive Jupiter-sized planets orbiting distant suns, protoplanetary disks of gas and dust surrounding newly formed stars, and planetary bodies orbiting exotic stellar corpses known as pulsars. Indeed, the formation of planets seems to be a broader and more varied phenomenon than previously imagined. Are there nearby solar systems with Earth-sized planets as well? Many would answer yes, but small, relatively low mass planets orbiting sunlike stars - which might be capable of supporting life - are extremely difficult to detect. One possible approach to this daunting observational problem is to regularly monitor the light from many solar-type stars, searching for the slight decrease in brightness which signals the transit of a small planet in front of the stellar disk. A proposal for a space-based instrument to engage in such a program, the Kepler Mission, is illustrated above. In this concept, the monitoring space telescope orbits the Sun, slowly drifting away from Earth. The goal of this mission would be to discover Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of solar-type stars, taking a step toward answering the profound question - Does life exist on other worlds beyond our Solar System?

Tomorrow's picture: The Leonid Meteor Shower

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
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