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UC Berkeley faculty help discover smallest solar system

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JANUARY 11, 2012

A NASA mission led in part by UC Berkeley faculty has discovered the smallest solar system to date, taking a step toward finding another planet that can support life.

The discovery revealed a solar system made up of three planets, each smaller than Earth, orbiting around a red dwarf star located about 120 light years away. The planets are believed to have a rocky terrain that is more likely to support life but are too hot to have liquid water, with surface temperatures between 500 and 600 degrees Celsius, according to Geoff Marcy, a campus professor of astronomy involved with the research.

After the Kepler Telescope observed the three planets passing in front of the distant star, the information was reinforced by subsequent observations from Palomar Observatory near San Diego and the Keck Observatory on the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii that confirmed its existence, according to a press release.

Marcy and Gibor Basri, campus vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, are two of 19 co-investigators providing leadership for the NASA Kepler mission — an ongoing search for another planet that can sustain life — deciding what data to look for and how to interpret it.

Researchers can also use a remote observing station on campus to remotely operate the Keck Observatory from far away. Marcy said he spent 150 nights operating the telescope in Hawaii for the research.

Since the discovered solar is system is somewhat like our own, it is giving rise to the hope that researchers will find another habitable planet. One of the planets discovered is about the same size as Mars, marking the first time a similarly sized planet has been found, Marcy said.

“We are still looking for the holy grail of an Earth-sized planet with a similar environment … but we are homing in on a truly Earth-like planet,” he said.

Franklin Krbechek covers research and ideas.

JANUARY 12, 2012