Mega-Earth discovery confounds astronomers, hints at life’s ancient roots

Artist’s conception of Kepler-10c (foreground) and its sibling, the lava world Kepler-10b,orbiting the sunlike star Kepler 10.  Kepler-10c has a diameter of about 18,000 miles, 2.3 times as large as Earth, and weighs 17 times as much. It may also possess a thin atmosphere. Credit: David A. Aguilar, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Rooting around extrasolar planetary systems like paleontologists on a dinosaur dig astronomers have found a remarkable new planet 17 times more massive than Earth. Improbably, it’s made of rock.

Planets that huge should have grabbed the hydrogen gas in their neighborhood to become big gas bags like Jupiter and Saturn. Not this one. It’s all solids and much bigger than previous “super Earth” finds. Like our paleontologist friends, it’s time to add a new entry to the ever-growing list of planet species.

Kepler-10c circles a sunlike star once every 45 days. It is located about 560 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco. The system also hosts the ‘lava world’ Kepler-10b, which circles so close to its host star the molten planet zips around it every 20 days.

Normally planets this massive are more like the planet Neptune with its gassy cloak of hydrogen and helium tinted blue by the addition of methane. Kepler-10c was known to have a diameter of about 18,000 miles, 2.3 times as large as Earth. This suggested it fell into a category of planets known as mini-Neptunes.

The HARPS-North spectrograph in the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands (shown here) was used to characterize Kepler-10c as a massive, rocky planet. Credit: INAF

To distinguish whether its heavy mass came from gas or solids, a team of astronomers from the  team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used the HARPS-North instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands to measure the mass of Kepler-10c. (HARPS stands for High-Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) This precision spectrograph is designed to detect the tiny changes in speed induced by planets as small as Earth on their host stars, so long as they orbit close to that star.

Alternate artist’s view of the Kepler 10 system in Draco. Credit: NASA

They found that Kepler-10c weighed 17 times as much as Earth, much more than expected for a gaseous Neptune-like planet. From this, the team inferred that Kepler-10c must have a dense composition of rocks and other solids. The discovery also has profound implications for the possibility of life arising in the universe long ago. The Kepler-10 system is about 11 billion years old, which means it formed fewer than 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

Rocky planets are made of heavy elements like iron, magnesium and silicon, materials that have to be manufactured in the cores of stars and then released into space through supernova explosions. But the early universe was basically all hydrogen and helium. Kepler-10c shows that the universe was able to form such huge rocks even during the time when heavy elements were scarce.

“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 CfA researcher Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative.

Rocks and life – I hadn’t thought how much we had in common but it’s true. Both are built of complex elements. Salt of the Earth. Dust blowin’ in the wind. These are the very things that keep us humming along generation after generation.

Kepler-10c not only expands our idea of what makes a planet, but the fact that it’s out there at all implies that older star systems can no longer be dismissed as places to search for habitable worlds.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

5 thoughts on “Mega-Earth discovery confounds astronomers, hints at life’s ancient roots

    • You’re welcome Giorgio. Have you been observing Mars lately? It’s getting smaller now and I don’t see as many features except when the atmosphere is very calm.

      • Yess I saw and shot it just yesterday night. I confirm that, with angular diameter 75% (respect the maximum it had at opposition), less features are visible. I saw the polar cap clearly and a bit of dark terrain, with variable seeing around 3/5.

        However I love Mars also in this period because of its phase (now at 90%). Already two weeks ago I captured it well on photo, and it is now quite evident in visual.

        Moreover, in this period the planet can be seen at day at culmination (i.e. best conditions). Did you? The color contrast makes its orange very vivid. A week ago, in a very clear day, I was able to see it naked eye a few minutes before sunset! And it’s great in telescope both in visual and photography – according hour and conditions, it appears to me the usual orange, or of a “true” sandy color (before sunset is the best time, because in eyepiece sky is always darker than at naked eye – to find Mars one can align on Sun if he has solar filter, or on Moon now she’s around at evening).

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