seisplanetasUsing theKepler space telescopefrom NASA, an international team of scientists has discovereda very compact planetary system made up of a sun-like star, called Kepler-11, and six planets, as published this week by the magazineNature.

According to NASA, this system containsthe first planets of a size similar to Earth, and among them the first ones orbiting in the so-called habitable zone, a region at a sufficient distance from its star so that liquid water can exist on its surface. The five inner planets of the Kepler-11 system have between 2.3 and 13.5 times the mass of Earth. Their orbital periods are less than 50 days, so they orbit within a region that could be compared to the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. The sixth planet is larger and further away, with an orbital period of 118 days and an indeterminate mass. According to Jonathan Fortney, co-author of the study, “of the six planets,the most massive are possibly like Neptune and Uranusbut the three with less mass are different from those existing in the Solar System. “

To measure the mass of the new planets, scientists have used a new technique based on theirgravitational interactions. “Not only is it an amazing planetary system, it also validates a new method to know the masses of the planets”, clarifies Daniel Fabrycky, a researcher at the University of California in Santa Cruz (United States) and co-author of the study.

As in the case of the Solar System,all the planets of Kepler-11 orbit more or less in the same plane. This discovery reinforces the idea that planets form in flattened disks of gas and dust that revolve around a star, and the disk pattern is maintained after the planets have formed. “The orbits of our solar system originally inspired this theory, and now we have another good example,” says Fabrycky.

The densities of the planets provide clues to their compositions. All six planets have densities lower than Earth. It seems that the inner two could be made up mostly of water, with possibly a thin layer of hydrogen-helium gas on the surface, like mini-Neptunes. “Those that are further away have densities lower than that of water, which seems to indicatehydrogen-helium atmospheres“explains Fortney. This surprises the researchers because a small hot planet would have a difficult time maintaining a light atmosphere.

One of the reasons the discovery is so important is thatallows researchers to make comparisons between planets in the same system. “With the comparison of planets we have understood our solar system so it is much better than discovering more hot Jupiters alone around other stars,” says Fortney.

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