Scientists pleasantly surprised by number of Earth-size, distant planets
The planet Kepler-10b orbits a star similar to our own Sun in its temperature, mass and size.
February 19th, 2011
06:02 PM ET

Scientists pleasantly surprised by number of Earth-size, distant planets

Where might extraterrestrials live? The first step is figuring out what other planets out there have conditions like our own.

Scientists using NASA's Kepler space telescope are working hard to find candidates for inhabitable planets. So far, it seems that for approximately every two stars in the galaxy, there is one possible planet, NASA's William Borucki said Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.

Researchers have found some 1,200 candidate-planets and, of them, about 54 are earth-size candidate planets in habitable zones - in other words, perhaps at a distance from their stars that may be suitable for life. Earlier this month officials at NASA announced the discovery of five probable planets about the size of Earth, as well as six larger than our planet that are orbiting a single star. But bear in mind that Venus is also considered an "Earth-sized planet," and clearly no lifeforms live there (as far as we know).

Scientists on the Kepler mission revealed Saturday that you're probably going to have to wait until at least 2012 to find out anything substantial about the habitability of what appear to be Earth-sized planets. That's because scientists need to be able to see three transits of a planet around a star in three years before they'd be willing to say too much about them, and the project has only been going since 2009 (after all, our planet goes around the sun three times in three years).

And even then, Kepler wasn't designed to look at individual planets. But it might identify some that the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2014, can probe in further detail, looking at atmospheres and such. And note that the probability of having found our own particular planet using Kepler technology is only 12%.

And we won't be traveling to meet our potential new neighbors anytime soon. The stars about the size our sun that Kepler has been looking at are about 1,000 to 3,000 light years away, where one light year is about 6 trillion miles.

But there have been some fascinating surprises from the Kepler mission. One of them is that there appear to be a remarkable number of planets about the size of Neptune, which has a diameter four times that of Earth, said Sara Seager, physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The planet Kepler-10b, shown in the photo above, is a particularly interesting find because it likely has no atmosphere, but does have liquid oceans that are essentially lava lakes, she said.

The existence of many small planets in the galaxy that Kepler has found also amazed scientists, because there was a possibility that they would have been destroyed by larger planets long ago.

"It was a wonderful surprise to see this large number of small planets we have found," Borucki said.

Post by:
Filed under: Science • Space
Wisconsin businessman: Havoc isn't 'what this process is about'
Dan Mulder of Madison says the political bickering is out of hand. "He who creates the most mayhem prevails in the day.”
February 19th, 2011
05:24 PM ET

Wisconsin businessman: Havoc isn't 'what this process is about'

Dan Mulder is staying away from the marching and chanting around the Capitol steps in Madison and staying put in his office and warehouse. But it’s not because he doesn’t have an opinion. Far from it.

Mulder is the general manager and chief executive officer of a local business employing 25 people. He’s seen costs skyrocket and health care insurance premiums continue to rise.

He describes himself as an independent — he did not vote for the recently inaugurated Gov. Scott Walker. These days, however, he says Walker’s plan on fixing the budget deficit, which includes removing public sector employees’ collective bargaining rights, is right on the mark.

“I just think [Walker] deserves an Oscar for standing up,” Mulder said. “He’s got the resilience and the constitution to stand up and take on this issue.

“He fully realizes and understands that you can’t pay with what you don’t have, so he’s trying to live within his means. And that’s something that is completely foreign as a concept to most government sectors because if they need more money, they just raise taxes. The people who are paying those taxes are saying, ‘We can’t pay any more’.”

Mulder is a proponent of a civil and rational dialogue and exchange of ideas. He says the protests and chaos happening at the Capitol is not the way to go about getting things done.

“He who is loudest, he who is most vocal, he who creates the most mayhem prevails in the day,” Mulder said, shaking his head. “That should never be what this process is about."

“It’s really tragic because this is somewhat akin to the Civil War. Not that we’re at that level and hopefully we won’t be. But you’ve got brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor—that’s how driven this argument is.”

As far as the Democratic legislators fleeing the state to prevent a vote on the controversial bill, Mulder says they were elected to do a job - and not just when they feel like it.

“The last time I woke up, we were in a democratic society,” Mulder said, adding that the November elections — which put both a Republican governor and Republican legislature in place—were a clear mandate that it’s their turn to try some solutions.

“That Republican administration has been put in place by public mandate. And now that they’re exercising that mandate there's a minority of the population that doesn’t want to conform to that. Then it’s not a democracy anymore.”

He concluded by saying if people aren’t careful, the situation could eventually turn into anarchy.

“It’s tragic.”

Oprah Winfrey academy student questioned in infant's death
Oprah Winfrey and students inaugurate her South African academy in 2007.
February 19th, 2011
11:02 AM ET

Oprah Winfrey academy student questioned in infant's death

A student of Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa is being questioned in the death of an infant, authorities said.

The body of the newborn boy was found in the 17-year-old girl's bag as she was being treated in a hospital for excessive bleeding.

Police suspect she gave birth at the school, but say it is unclear if the child died naturally or was killed at birth. An autopsy was under way.

American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey opened the school in January 2007 to provide educational opportunities for impoverished girls in South Africa.

Post by:
Filed under: Crime • Education • Oprah Winfrey • South Africa
February 19th, 2011
08:22 AM ET

Report: Helicopters fire on Libya protesters

Helicopters fired at demonstrators and sounds of gunfire rang out Saturday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, a doctor who witnessed the incident told CNN.

The doctor said dozens of injured people are being hospitalized, most suffering from gunshot wounds. CNN is not identifying the doctor security reasons.

"The situation is critical right now. The city is effectively under siege," the doctor said.

Post by:
Filed under: Libya • Protest