Chicago-area scientist helps discover new solar system

February 3, 2011

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(NNASA/Tim Pyle)
Kepler-11, shown here in an artist's conception, is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit.

Astronomers have spotted a six-planet solar system orbiting a star similar to the Sun. It’s part of a huge crop of new planets discovered by a team that includes a Chicago-area scientist.

Most planets previously discovered outside our own solar system have been loners. But a big data dump released this week from NASA’s Kelper mission includes a whole bunch of multi-planet systems. Jason Steffen, a researcher at Fermilab who helped analyze the data, said he, for one, was surprised.

“I was expecting maybe a handful of systems with two,” Steffen said. “I wasn’t expecting to see a hundred systems with two and fifty with three.”

The real standout is Kepler-11. It’s the most crowded solar system ever found, besides our own. Steffen said that made it hard to untangle all the information.

“We had to kind of rewrite some of our software so we could handle a system this large,” he said.

Kepler-11’s six planets range from twice the size of earth up to the size of Neptune. They’re all too hot to be good candidates for sustaining life. The Kelper telescope spots planets by detecting minute dimming as they pass in front of their stars.