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The Daily Need

A hot rock and a gas blob make headlines

Two exciting cosmological discoveries were announced this week. The first: the Kepler satellite detected a small planet outside of our solar system. The second: the Hubble telescope team photographed a large, green blob and found that it was, in fact, producing stars. Both  discoveries were unveiled at a Seattle American Astronomical Society conference, and both are generating quite a bit of buzz.

The new planet, NASA announced, is the smallest yet discovered outside of our solar system. The amazing part? It’s hard and rocky. Like Earth.

An artist's concept of Kepler-10b. Photo: NASA

Astronomers have cataloged hundreds of planets outside of our solar system, but most are huge, glowing gaseous balls that dwarf our (comparatively) small blue home. The newly discovered planet, Kepler 10-b, is solid and only 1.4 times the size of Earth.

But there are a few major differences: For one, Kepler 10-b orbits very close to its star, so a year is only 20 hours long. Even more unappealing is Kepler 10-b’s surface temperature, which averages 2,500 degrees F.

The new planet is 560 light-years away, and was detected when the Kepler satellite noticed a very, very small decrease in the light emitted from Kepler 10-b’s star when the planet passed in front of it. The discovery has left scientists hopeful that the satellite, which was designed to find habitable planets similar to Earth, is on the right track.

On the same day that the Kepler team announced the discovery of Kepler 10-b, the Hubble telescope team released its gorgeous new photograph of a big green space blob — a development that astronomy enthusiasts found equally exciting. What’s more, the image revealed that the once-mysterious blob is creating stars.

Hanny's Voorwerp appears in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA, ESA, W. Keel (University of Alabama) and the Galaxy Zoo Team

The blob, called Hanny’s Voorwerp (Dutch for Hanny’s Object), was discovered by a Dutch school teacher named Hanny van Arkel three years ago while she was participating in an online, galaxy-identifying project called Galaxy Zoo.

The Voorwerp is actually part of a long, twisting rope of gas called a “tidal tale.” At one end, the tale comes close to a galaxy, IC 2947, about 650 million light-years from Earth. Gasses from the galaxy are floating outward and colliding with the Voorwerp, causing it to disintegrate into comparatively small, hot gaseous blobs (stars).

“The star clusters are localized, confined to an area that is over a few thousand light-years wide,” said Dr. Bill Keel, the leader of the Hubble study, in a press release. “The region may have been churning out stars for several million years. They are so dim that they have previously been lost in the brilliant light of the surrounding gas.”

Like the Kepler team, the Hubble team is excited about the likelihood that the picture of the Voorwerp will give way to even more exciting discoveries in the future. Or at least pave the way for more pretty images of colorful, gaseous globs.

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