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. Cesar

    The sun is hot. Neptune is blue. Jupiter has a big ring around it. Pluto is no longer a star. The moon is cold. We have 8 planets in our solar system. Mars is red. There is a black hole next to the milky way. That is all I know.

    February 19, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Pedant

      "Pluto is no longer a star"?

      It never was.

      February 19, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. doctor dooooooooooolittle

    somebody find me a planet without the freakin cold virus on it....

    February 19, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Badonkadonk

    FOOLS!!!! Don't you know all this poking and prodding will alert the Borg to our presence??? We are dooming ourselves to assimilation!

    February 19, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • roflamericanwinner

      This is exactly why Americans need to uphold the 2nd amendment. Americans might be our only hope if the process of assimilation is initiated.

      February 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      how come they never used the teleporter as a weapon? if i was captain before we talked to them on the viewer.. i'd be like ok guys.. when we start talking to the aliens i'll hold my hand up, that's when you beam there head off and beam it into my hand..

      February 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      also who would win? borg vs terminator?

      February 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      Borg...everything and all thing are converted to serve the machine

      February 19, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. eman

    Interesting discovery.I love the window shopping.The hard fact is that the possibility of getting there is inversly proportional to the distance from Earth to these planets.
    Except there are such things like worm holes, hyperspace and the technology to manoeuvre it,these planets will remain nothing but a 'beautiful work of art' for a VERY long time.
    Please lets concentrate on issues like cheap renewable source of energy so that our planet can be sustained or it will implode in our faces before we find new one.

    February 19, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. RUFFNUTT

    how come aliens only kidnap rednecks?

    February 19, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Death Panel Sarah

      'cause they "squeeeeeel"

      February 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      Easy pickings because they're always under influence of moonshine

      February 19, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. banasy

    Cesar, sweetie, *Saturn* has the rings around it....

    February 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      While Saturn's rings are bright enough that you can see them with even a cheapie telescope, the guy you're correcting was in fact correct: Jupiter also has a ring system. For that matter, so do Uranus and Neptune. So far it seems like a common feature for gas giants.

      February 19, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      the planet Tub also has visible rings around it just not as colorful

      February 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy

    And Pluto was never a *planet*, not never a *star*, lol! But I love me some Cesar, anyway!

    February 19, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Cecil

    Anyone else see anything wrong with this statement? "Scientists using NASA's Kepler space telescope are working hard to find candidates for inhabitable planets>"

    Why do I keep finding typos like this in CNN posts?Are they in that much of a hurry to get them up? Can't afford a proof reader?

    February 19, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      cnn only pays 10$ a hour..

      February 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cesar

    @banasy: That's right, I forgot. Jupiter has that red spot that's a storm three times the size of Earth. Thank you banasy for the correction.

    February 19, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Cesar

    No Cecil, no typos here. Sorry Charlie.

    February 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rico Suave

    All we need to find is one planet and I will go along with 300 or so women and populate it in a flash.

    February 19, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Cesar

    @banasy, I don't see Cecil's point; tried and tried, do you?

    February 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Cesar

    @Cecil. Sorry, Cecil, but the only mistake I see is your typo. You put that little triangle thingy instead of a period at the end. Maybe you're the one that needs a good proof reader, moron!

    February 19, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cecil

      I have an excuse. A major news network does not.

      February 19, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Henry

    "Where might extraterrestrials live?" Finally the acknowledgement of E.T's on CNN!

    February 19, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cecil

    Cesar,,

    They meant to say habitable not inhabitable. Comprende?

    February 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
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