Simply put, an exoplanet is a planet that orbits another star.
All of the planets in our solar system orbit around the Sun. Planets that orbit around other stars outside our solar system are called exoplanets.
Just because a planet orbits a star (like Earth) does not mean that it is automatically stable for life. The planet must be within the habitable zone, which is the area around a star in which water has the potential to be liquid…aka not so close that all the water would evaporate, and not too far away where all the water would freeze.
Exoplanets are very hard to see directly with telescopes. They are hidden by the bright glare of the stars they orbit. So, astronomers use other ways to detect and study these distant planets by looking at the effects these planets have on the stars they orbit.
One way to search for exoplanets is to look for “wobbly” stars. A star that has planets doesn’t orbit perfectly around its center. From far away, this off-center orbit makes the star look like it’s wobbling. Hundreds of planets have been discovered using this method. However, only big planets—like Jupiter, or even larger—can be seen this way. Smaller Earth-like planets are much harder to find because they create only small wobbles that are hard to detect.
How can we find Earth-like planets in other solar systems?
In 2009, we launched a spacecraft called Kepler to look for exoplanets. Kepler looked for planets in a wide range of sizes and orbits. And these planets orbited around stars that varied in size and temperature.
Kepler detected exoplanets using something called the transit method. When a planet passes in front of its star, it’s called a transit. As the planet transits in front of the star, it blocks out a little bit of the star’s light. That means a star will look a little less bright when the planet passes in front of it. Astronomers can observe how the brightness of the star changes during a transit. This can help them figure out the size of the planet.
By studying the time between transits, astronomers can also find out how far away the planet is from its star. This tells us something about the planet’s temperature. If a planet is just the right temperature, it could contain liquid water—an important ingredient for life.
So far, thousands of planets have been discovered by the Kepler mission.
We now know that exoplanets are very common in the universe. And future missions have been planned to discover many more!
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