A journey that began four decades before Columbus sailed for the New World finally ended when the Kepler space telescope snared a few errant photons as they shot past Earth’s orbit en route to infinity. The light had sped through space for 560 years, traveling more than three quadrillion miles from a star much like our sun. Captured by Kepler’s digital sensors, transformed into bytes of data, and downloaded to computers at NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Francisco, the processed starlight slowly revealed a remarkable story: A planet not much bigger than Earth was whipping around its native star at a blistering pace, completing an orbit—its version of a “year”—in just over 20 hours.
Aside from its size, the planet bears little resemblance to Earth. It circles so close to its star that its surface temperature probably exceeds 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt iron. Nevertheless, the planet’s detection was a technical and intellectual coup, a rite of passage for Kepler. The planet, dubbed Kepler-10 b when NASA announced its existence this past January, was the smallest world yet found beyond our solar system. Its discovery proved that the Kepler spacecraft, which was launched in March 2009, could indeed do what its designers had boldly promised: find small, Earth-size planets around distant stars, a task that once seemed so difficult as to border on the absurd.
Kepler-10 b was merely a preview. A month after the January announcement, NASA released its first full data set from the Kepler mission, and the results left astronomers straining for superlatives. “Frankly, we’re overwhelmed,” says Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Kepler team. “What NASA is doing is akin to the transoceanic voyages of the 15th century—the voyages that opened up the whole world. With the Kepler telescope, we’re learning about the properties of planets across the cosmic ocean. This is history. It’s Armstrong stepping off the bottom rung.”