Kepler's discoveries. Image credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel.
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is proving itself to be a prolific planet hunter. Within just the first four months of data, astronomers have found evidence for more than 1,200 planetary candidates. Of those, 408 reside in systems containing two or more planets, and most of those look very different than our solar system.
In particular, the Kepler systems with multiple planets are much flatter than our solar system. They have to be for Kepler to spot them. Kepler watches for a planet to cross in front of its star, blocking a tiny fraction of the star’s light. By measuring how much the star dims during such a transit, astronomers can calculate the planet’s size, and by observing the time between successive events they can derive the orbital period – how long it takes the planet to revolve around its star.
To see a transit, the planet’s orbit must be edge-on to our line of sight. To see multiple transiting planets, they all must be edge-on (or nearly so).(read more)