NASA discovery of Kepler-10c steps up claims for alien life

A newly revealed rocky mega-planet shows the universe was capable of creating extraterrestrial-friendly worlds shortly after the Big Bang.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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An artist concept shows Kepler-10c in the foreground, a planet that weighs 17 times as much as Earth and is more than twice as large in size. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar

NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics just made a discovery that could turn the theory of how planets were created within our universe onto its head.

It all boils down to a giant rocky planet named Kepler-10c.

Kepler-10c inhabits a constellation called Draco, which is about 560 light-years from Earth. It orbits a sun-like star once every 45 days. But, what's most astonishing about Kepler-10c is its weight. The heavy-set planet is 2.3 times the size of Earth about weighs about 17 times as much as our planet.

This means that Kepler-10c is likely made of rock and other dense solids -- something astronomers thought was impossible for a planet this size. Typically mega-planets, like Jupiter and Neptune, snatch hydrogen gas as they grow and become big gassy giants.

"Just when you think you've got it all figured out, nature gives you a huge surprise -- in this case, literally," Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center Natalie Batalha said in a statement. "Isn't science marvelous?"

NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced their findings about Kepler-10c on Tuesday saying that scientists are confounded by the rocky mass.

Kepler-10c was discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft -- hence its name. The spacecraft has been in hot pursuit of other planets that could support extraterrestrial life for about five years. Last April, NASA announced that Kepler had flagged more than 2,700 possible planets, 105 of which had been confirmed.

Initially, astronomers weren't able to calculate Kepler-10c's weight. But, using a special instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands, scientists were finally able to tally up the planet's weight, which was far more than they expected.

"We were very surprised when we realized what we had found," Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Xavier Dumusque said.

So, how does all of this relate to the theory of how planets evolved in the universe? Well, astronomers believe the solar system where Kepler-10c lives is roughly 11 billion years old -- forming less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

Previously, scientists thought the universe wasn't capable of creating rocky planets with many heavy elements in its early stages. It was believed that mostly only hydrogen and helium existed back then. But, Kepler-10c disproves that theory showing the universe was able to cobble together dense planets shortly after the Big Bang.

This means the possibility of extraterrestrial life could be far more likely -- because now even old stars can host Earth-like planets.

"Finding Kepler-10c tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought," Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Dimitar Sasselov said in a statement. "And if you can make rocks, you can make life."