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Astronomers find three smallest planets outside solar system

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This artist's conception illustrates KOI-961. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON (BNS): Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission and ground-based telescopes have confirmed that the system, called KOI-961, hosts the three smallest exoplanets known so far to orbit a star other than our sun.

The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

According to NASA, the star, which is located about 130 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation, is what's called a red dwarf. It's one-sixth the size of the sun, or just 70 percent bigger than Jupiter. The star is also cooler than our sun, and gives off more red light than yellow.

All three planets whip around the star in less than two days, with the closest planet taking less than half a day. Their close proximity to the star also means they are scorching hot, with temperatures ranging from 350 to 836 degrees Fahrenheit (176 to 447 degrees Celsius). The star's habitable zone, or the region where liquid water could exist, is located far beyond the planets.

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth, but orbit close to their star. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars -- called exoplanets -- only a handful are known to be rocky.

Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by crossing, or transiting, planets.

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Astronomers  stars  planets  NASA  
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