First transiting planets in a star cluster discovered

June 26, 2013

All stars begin their lives in groups. Most stars, including our Sun, are born in small, benign groups that quickly fall apart. Others form in huge, dense swarms that survive for billions of years as stellar clusters. Within such rich and dense clusters, stars jostle for room with thousands of neighbors while strong radiation and harsh stellar winds scour interstellar space, stripping planet-forming materials from nearby stars.

It would thus seem an unlikely place to find alien worlds. Yet 3,000 light-years from Earth, in the star cluster NGC 6811, astronomers have found two planets smaller than Neptune orbiting Sun-like stars. The discovery, published in the journal Nature, shows that planets can develop even in crowded clusters jam-packed with stars.

"Old clusters represent a stellar environment much different than the birthplace of the Sun and other planet-hosting field stars," says lead author Soren Meibom of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "And we thought maybe planets couldn't easily form and survive in the stressful environments of dense clusters, in part because for a long time we couldn't find them."

The two new alien worlds appeared in data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Kepler hunts for planets that transit, or cross in front of, their host stars. During a transit, the star dims by an amount that depends on the size of the planet, allowing the size to be determined. Kepler-66b and Kepler-67b are both less than three times the size of Earth, or about three-fourths the size of Neptune (mini-Neptunes).

Of the more than 850 known planets beyond our solar system, only four - all similar to or greater than Jupiter in mass - were found in clusters. Kepler-66b and -67b are the smallest planets to be found in a star cluster, and the first cluster planets seen to transit their host stars, which enables the measurement of their sizes.

Meibom and his colleagues have measured the age of NGC 6811 to be one billion years. Kepler-66b and Kepler-67b therefore join a small group of planets with precisely determined ages, distances, and sizes.

Considering the number of stars observed by Kepler in NGC 6811, the detection of two such planets implies that the frequency and properties of planets in open clusters are consistent with those of planets around field stars (stars not within a cluster or association) in the Milky Way galaxy.

"These planets are cosmic extremophiles," says Meibom. "Finding them shows that small planets can form and survive for at least a billion years, even in a chaotic and hostile environment."
-end-


Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Related Planets Articles from Brightsurf:

Stars and planets grow up together as siblings
ALMA shows rings around the still-growing proto-star IRS 63

Two planets around a red dwarf
The 'SAINT-EX' Observatory, led by scientists from the National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR PlanetS of the University of Bern and the University of Geneva, has detected two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266.

Some planets may be better for life than Earth
Researchers have identified two dozen planets outside our solar system that may have conditions more suitable for life than our own.

Fifty new planets confirmed in machine learning first
Fifty potential planets have had their existence confirmed by a new machine learning algorithm developed by University of Warwick scientists.

Rogue planets could outnumber the stars
An upcoming NASA mission could find that there are more rogue planets - planets that float in space without orbiting a sun - than there are stars in the Milky Way, a new study theorizes.

Could mini-Neptunes be irradiated ocean planets?
Many exoplanets known today are ''super-Earths'', with a radius 1.3 times that of Earth, and ''mini-Neptunes'', with 2.4 Earth radii.

As many as six billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, according to new estimates
There may be as many as one Earth-like planet for every five Sun-like stars in the Milky way Galaxy, according to new estimates by University of British Columbia astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission.

How planets may form after dust sticks together
Scientists may have figured out how dust particles can stick together to form planets, according to a Rutgers co-authored study that may also help to improve industrial processes.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

The rare molecule weighing in on the birth of planets
Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star -- and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers.

Read More: Planets News and Planets Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.