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Planet-Hunting Telescope Unearths Hot Mysteries in Space

Kepler's Image Sensor

Kepler captures pictures with a device that's essentially an extreme digital camera: an array of 42 charge coupled devices (CCDs). Each CCD is 2.8 by 3.0 cm with 1,024 by 1,100 pixels. The entire focal plane contains 95 megapixels. (NASA and Ball Aerospace)

WASHINGTON — NASA's new planet-hunting telescope has found two mystery objects that are too hot to be planets and too small to be stars.

The Kepler Telescope, launched in March, discovered the two new heavenly bodies, each circling its own star. Telescope chief scientist Bill Borucki of NASA said the objects are thousands of degrees hotter than the stars they circle. That means they probably aren't planets. They are bigger and hotter than planets in our solar system, including dwarf planets.

"The universe keeps making strange things stranger than we can think of in our imagination," said Jon Morse, head of astrophysics for NASA.

The new discoveries don't quite fit into any definition of known astronomical objects, and so far don't have a classification of their own. Details about the mystery objects were presented Monday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington. 

SLIDESHOW: Kepler Space Scope's Amazing Discoveries

>For now, NASA researcher Jason Rowe, who found the objects, said he calls them "hot companions."

How hot? Try 26,000 degrees Fahrenheit (14,425 Celsius). That is hot enough to melt lead or iron.

There are two leading theories for what the objects might be and those theories cover both ends of the cosmic life cycle:

--Rowe suggests they are newly born planets. New planets have extremely high temperatures, and in this case Rowe speculates they might be only about 200 million years old.

--Ronald Gilliland of the Space Telescope Science Institute says they could be white dwarf stars that are dying and stripping off their outer shells and shrinking.