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.

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soundoff (325 Responses)
  1. K C

    This is very exciting. :) Even though we may never know if there are other lifeforms in our lifetime, the strides we are making into discovering the universe is amazing.

    March 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • ILL WILL

      I agree.

      August 12, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. InvatExteve

    перачытаў ўвесь блог, даволі нядрэнна

    June 5, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  3. Roman

    Thanks, VishInhabitable planets are difneed as being capable of evolving life as we know it so they have similar temperature ranges as earth, similar gravity and the possibility of sustaining water. “Life” right now is something like the life we know on earth. Replicating, evolving, self-organizing etc.As for afterlife issues there is much in what you say. Our consciousness can be cosmic and transferrable to other life forms in the universe. Maybe the reincarnation of souls is a continuity of emergent intelligence which does not “die” when a given human dies, but is reincarnated in ever widening life communities on earth and beyond.It is also possible that life on earth was initiated here by souls from other worlds, who started their exploration millions of years before us and successfully identified earth as a suitable place to seed their reincarnations.

    March 13, 2012 at 6:59 am | Report abuse |
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