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8/7/2009
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NASA's Kepler Spots Atmosphere On Distant Planet

The Kepler space telescope provides the closest look yet at the HAT-P-7 exoplanet as it searches for Earth-like planets in other solar systems.

NASA's orbiting Kepler space telescope has detected the atmosphere on a previously discovered exoplanet—a planet beyond Earth's solar system that orbits its own star.

The telescope collected the data from HAT-P-7, about 1,000 light years from Earth.

NASA said the find demonstrates Kepler's ability to deliver precise information on some of the galaxy's most distant objects. The capability could eventually help researchers discover Earth-like planets in other solar systems.

"As NASA's first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene," said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate's Astrophysics Division at NASA's Washington, D.C. headquarters, in a statement.

Kepler was launched March 6 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will spend the next three years hunting for Earth's sister planets. The telescope will improve its chances by focusing on planets that are similar to Earth in size and are located at a distance from their sun that would permit the existence of water.

Kepler does not provide visual views of the planets it finds. Rather, it detects their existence by tracking dips in the brightness of stars—which occur when an orbiting planet travels across the face of its sun. HAT-P-7 orbits its star in just 2.2 days. It's 26 times closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun.

The planet's size and high temperature have led astronomers to label it "hot Jupiter." Its surface is said to be as hot as the heating element on a stove.

"The new Kepler data can be used to study this hot Jupiter in unprecedented detail," said NASA.

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