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The amazing alien planet discoveries of 2013
The amazing alien planet discoveries of 2013 | MNN - Mother Nature NetworkThe range of alien planets found in 2013 ranged from planets that would be perfect for Earthlings...if only they weren't so hot or were 'water worlds.'
While astronomers didn't bag that elusive first "alien Earth" in 2013, they made plenty of exciting exoplanet discoveries during the past year.
Here's a list of the top exoplanet finds of 2013, from a tiny world about the size of Earth's moon to a blue gas giant on which it rains molten glass:
The smallest exoplanet
In February, astronomers announced the discovery of Kepler-37b, the smallest alien world ever found around a sun-like star. The planet is about 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometers) wide, making it just slightly larger than Earth's moon. [9 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]
Kepler-37b, which was spotted by NASA's prolific Kepler space telescope, lies about 215 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is likely far too hot to host life as we know it; it zips around its parent star once every 13 days.
The most Earthlike world yet
Also this year, researchers found the closest thing to an Earth twin in size and composition, though it's far too hot to support life as we know it.
Kepler-78b is just 20 percent wider and about 80 percent more massive than our planet, with a density nearly identical to that of Earth. The alien world, which is about 400 light-years from Earth, lies just 900,000 miles (1.5 million km) from its host star and completes one orbit every 8.5 hours. Surface temperatures on Kepler-78b likely top 3,680 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius), researchers say.
1,000 alien planets
Astronomers found the first-ever planets orbiting a star other than our sun in 1992. And in 2013, barely two decades later, they notched alien world number 1,000 — at least according to some tallies.
Two of the five main databases that catalog alien-planet discoveries passed the 1,000 mark this year, with both the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia and the Exoplanets Catalog, run by theUniversity of Puerto Rico at Arecibo's Planetary Habitability Laboratory, recording 1,056 alien worlds as of today (Dec. 26).
The other three databases — the NASA Exoplanet Archive, the Exoplanet Orbit Database, and the Open Exoplanet Catalog — have the tally at 976, 756 and 973, respectively. (The different numbers reflect the uncertainties inherent in exoplanet detection and confirmation.)
The first exoplanet cloud map
Also this year, astronomers created the first-ever cloud map on a planet beyond our solar system.
After observing the planet — a gas giant named Kepler-7b — for more than three years with NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, scientists detected a reflective signature that they interpreted as clouds. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]
The west side of Kepler-7b's atmosphere harbors many clouds while the east side has clear skies, researchers say. The planet, which was discovered in 2010, is about 1.5 times the size of Jupiter but less than half as massive.
Two potentially habitable 'water worlds'
In April, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, two explanets in the same solar system that both may be capable of supporting life as we know it.
The alien worlds are slightly larger than Earth, and modeling studies suggest that each is probably covered by an uninterrupted global ocean. Kepler-62e and f "look very good as possibilities for looking for life," Kepler mission principal investigator Bill Borucki, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said back in April.