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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Filed under: Science • Space
soundoff (325 Responses)
  1. RUFFNUTT

    they just wernt suprised they were pleasnatly..suprsed..

    February 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy

    @Ralf the Dog, post#27: LMAO!

    February 19, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Andrew Tyler

    The fact that so called scientists maintain that in order for a planet to be inhabitable it must have "Earth like conditions" displays how ignorant and in the dark modern scientific knowledge and understanding remains. We know beyond a doubt that even here on our own "earth like" planet there is highly developed life that does not require light, warmth or oxygen to live. Land dwelling creatures on Earth only require such things because those were the conditions present in our environment. In other words, we are a product or our environment, through and through so why would this not be the case on another world? It is highly probable that on any planet with any possible conditions, given enough time to stew and develop will eventually sprout life of some sort. That life may breathe nitrogen, hydrogen or not breathe at all. It may require subzero or scorching hot temperatures to survive. It may not even require a surface more than gaseous elements or even be perceptible to human senses. There could be all sorts of life right on Mars that we can't even see, hear or touch. The simple truth is that we have no idea as to what is out there and what it may or may not need to thrive. The modern science community needs to pull their collective head out of their collective a$$.
    Use your noggin!

    February 19, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Andrew, no one is suggesting anything of the sort. But here's what we do know... of all the millions of species of life that we know about, every single one comes from Earth. You have to start somewhere, so you start with what we already know for sure: find an Earth (meaning all the important boxes are checked, even if it's not identical) and you'll almost certainly find something calling it home.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Besides, Andrew, it's not as if the other planets are "thrown away". Each one is studied in detail, regardless of whether it's a big ball of hot gas, a rock, or something in between.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew Tyler

      SB,
      Hardly. We cannot study in detail something which we cannot fully comprehend.
      Keep trying though.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      @SB – save your breath/keystrokes. Any time some sort of science-related article is posted, all the armchair scientists and philosophers that got their PhD's from the University of Star Trek come out of the woodwork. Andrew Tyler obviously has a lot of time to hypothesize about the universe while he's ringing us through the checkout at Walmart.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Dude?

      Andrew don't be pretentious. This is a news article, not a thesis. The writer of ths article is giving the information that could most likely be understood by a layman without any prior knowledge of the subject. Conditions on Earth are what the layman understands. Scientists have not discounted other options, but so far all life on Earth needs water, despite whether or not it needs light or oxygen or whatever. That's what we know for sure. That's why they are looking for water. Also, given the science we have an undertsanding of, life from water/carbon is the life we would be able to detect. We might not be able to detect or prove that anything else is life, especially from the great distances from which they are observed.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • standingwave

      I have yet to hear a scientist state that life can only occur in earth-like conditions.

      February 19, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunspot

      Andrew – It's not about "comprehension". It's about EVIDENCE! And so far, the evidence for life beyond earth simply does NOT EXIST. That's why we're looking for that evidence. Patience!!!

      February 19, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • W. Mart, PhD

      Andrew, be not discouraged or hurt by the incomprehension and nastiness of these replies. Few are the humans who can imagine the limits of their existence.

      February 20, 2011 at 5:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. RichG

    Another point to consider is that the orbital planes of any given planet must bring the planets into the light path of their respective star, relative to our line of sight. I believe this to be the 12% probability the article mentions, but even that seems a bit high to me. I would think that it would be more likely in the range of 2% to 3%, so the fact that even a few were spotted seems to indicate a huge number that we are not able to detect.

    February 19, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy

    Awww, cut the insults, people! I want to read and learn...this is infinitely more interesting than anything else on this blog today! Play nice!

    February 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Carlos

    If one of these planets had advanced intelligent life, would it be possible, with our current technology, to detect that? For example, might we be able to detect radio or other transmissions coming from said planet?

    February 19, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • tomtom81

      Carlos, You might find this interesting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wow!_signal

      February 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SB

    Andrew,

    Quite a lot can be learned about a planet just by studying the light curve. From the orbital period and the dip in brightness, along with what you can measure of the host star, one can work out both mass and size. With size and mass known, density is known. With the distance from the star known, temperature is known.

    These things are related, you see, and learning some things tells you others.

    Later this decade there will be no fewer than three telescopes that will be capable of reading the chemical composition of the atmospheres of at least some of those planets.

    This is all true and easily found for yourself. The only thing I'm trying to do here is help.

    February 19, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      SB, you're bringing back happy memories of astronomy courses back in university. Is this a hobby for you, or do you work in the field?

      February 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. banasy

    See? Was that *nesessary*?

    February 19, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      some times i think the female 'planet of the apes' ape's are hot..

      February 19, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. RUFFNUTT

    how come they say earth shapped? dont they just me round and about the same size?

    coundn't we just be Kepler-10b sapped and not know it?

    February 19, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy

    Keep going, SB. I'm learning! And I appreciate it!

    February 19, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy

    And sometimes I wonder what planet *you're* from, Ruffie! Lol!

    February 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Casey

    I agree with Andrew Tyler. I cannot comprehend why scientists assume that in order for life to exist on other planets those planets must have conditions similar to our own here on Earth. Just as organisms have evolved to conditions on this planet over millions of years, life on other planets has probably evolved to the unique conditions that exist there. There may be human like beings thriving on other planets, just as there may also be other organisms and beings thriving that do not resemble Earth organisms and humans at all.

    February 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      No one is saying that life has to come from an Earth-like planet. But again, every single one of the millions of varied species we do know about, do come from Earth. You have to start somewhere, so you start with what you know.

      February 19, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Because those are the ONLY conditions by which scientists have EVIDENCE for. Science is different from every other endeavor in the sense that what scientists say must be supported by evidence. If scientists are looking for planets as candidates for life, they know that on earth-like planets it is possible for life to evolve. They lack evidence for other types, so while it may be possible, they don't consider them potential candidates because they have no evidence.

      They're not assuming anything, they are simply sticking to what they can accurately determine based on available evidence. We have a word for that. "Science".

      February 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Astarte

    some please send me to one of these planets...

    February 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geoff

      Prepare to be vaporized, melted, smashed, crushed, eaten, frozen, shredded, stabbed, spontaneously combusted, etc. once you land on a new planet, assuming you don't die of old age along the way.

      February 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. RUFFNUTT

    man this stuffs is kiking in...i think my room is turning to the right and dwons a litsle.. my reacor core might have a leak abnd the bong fumes are laeking..

    February 19, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Trent

    Excellent news. I'm very excited by the Kepler program.

    My only criticism of the article is the mentioning of a "photo." It's actually an artist's rendering since we do not yet possess the technology needed to photograph planets in that sort of detail.

    February 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Man DeLorean

      I was about to point that out when I found your comment. Thank you. I only wish we could see them that clearly.

      February 19, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
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