UNLV reaches out beyond the stars with Kepler-385 discovery

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Jason Steffen Assistant Professor Department(s) Physics and Astronomy July 26, 2022 (Josh Hawkins/UNLV)

Las Vegas is sometimes referred to as the “Center of the Universe” with its glitz, glamor, style and bravado. With the recent discoveries made about the Kepler-385 system,  it lives up to that title, literally. 

UNLV astrophysicist Jason Steffen alongside other NASA researchers recently published research, regarding a distant planet system named Kepler-385. NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which concluded its discoveries in 2013, contains an extensive catalog of planetary candidates and their respective properties, including Kepler-385. The system contains more than six verified planets or planet candidates, which is one of few planetary systems to exhibit this property. 

At the center of the system lies a star 10% larger and 5% hotter than our Sun. Among the other systems observed in Kepler’s mission, the catalog contains approximately 4,400 new planet candidates and more than 700 multi-planet systems. 

“The main thing with this catalog is that we had improved ways of measuring the properties of planets that were orbiting,” said Steffen. “We basically took the Kepler data and reanalyzed everything in order to get the correct orbital periods and adjust from some systemic effects. In doing so, that allowed us to uncover new signals that hadn’t been seen before.”

Steffen went on further to describe the method of identifying if stars had planets orbiting them: “We took a brightness measurement of it [star] and repeated it every half hour. It would take a brightness measurement of about 150,000 stars at a time. The case is that when the planet, if it happens to cross the line of sight, it will block a portion of the light from.”

“You just watch the star get dimmer every once in a while. If the way that it gets dimmer is the same from one dimming event to the next, then that indicates that there’s a planet that’s orbiting around them … It tells you roughly the size of the planet because a larger planet will block more of the star’s light than smaller ones. Most planets that were discovered by the Kepler mission are about one thousand light years away. It’s probably somewhere in that ballpark that’s what the Kepler mission did.”
While the Kepler mission is over, these recent discoveries provide further insight into the inner workings of the universe and the broader exploration of exoplanets. Understanding the greater implications of exoplanetary systems allows us to have more knowledge on how the distant reaches of space contribute to our comprehension of our own system.

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