The Kepler team today reports on four years of observations from the W. M. Keck Observatory targeting Kepler’s exoplanet systems, announcing results this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. These observations, from Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, confirm that numerous Kepler discoveries are indeed planets and yield mass measurements of these enigmatic worlds that vary between Earth and Neptune in size.
More than three-quarters of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have sizes ranging from that of Earth to that of Neptune, which is nearly four times as big as Earth. Such planets dominate the galactic census but are not represented in our own solar system. Astronomers don’t know how they form or if they are made of rock, water or gas.
Using one of the two world’s largest telescopes at Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists confirmed 41 of the exoplanets discovered by Kepler and determined the masses of 16. With the mass and diameter in-hand, scientists could immediately determine the density of the planets, characterizing them as rocky or gaseous, or mixtures of the two.