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. banasy

    @Cesar: you're right! And this is why I don't help my kid with her homework! You do know that I just kid around, don't you? Because if you don't know *that* by now, hot dog, am I in trouble!

    February 19, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cesar

    @Cecil, Timco says, the word inhabitable is correct. I googled the word, and Timco is right and you are wrong. I'm still sorry I said the "m" word. @banasy, always nice to listen to your opinions.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. J

    It feels like I'm stuck in a big dome. Get me out of here! I'm going INSANE!! Please help me, my alien friends.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      ...take a fish out of it's bowl it dies...

      February 19, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. salva

    It seems like every mistery is going to unfold around 2012 or sooner? Stop the BS,,,we are in the dark about so much....
    These illuminati want to scare us about everything......aliens, terrorist.end of the world, diseases, screw them
    Only God knows the Day and the Time have faith in Him and if we do not have an answer (only speculation) is because
    we are not suppose to know.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Death Panel Sarah

      To salva..... Hey! this area is for smart people only!!! The thumper section is down the hall.... it's labelled "t-o-i-l-e-t".

      February 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rei

    "An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless..."

    Wrong, you do not need to know how much water is in the ocean in order to use that water. Drake equation is valid, we just do not know the exact number of the variables. The same with light speed and everything, nothing in universe is exact.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Not

      Ah no, the speed of light value is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second.
      You can slow light down, and scientists have even stopped it for a fraction of a second.
      But it's always the same speed, in a vacuum.

      February 19, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rich

    Sounds to me like they are getting desperate for funding.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chris

    Ok so when do we start assembling Star Fleet?

    February 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geoff

      When the government fixes the economy. It's easy-tax rich aliens who wish to dock in our atmosphere, and develop a trade network between Planet X and Earth. Or, you could just duct tape Corvettes to booster rockets, and seal the car in a diamond-reinforced bubble with compressed oxygen tanks.

      February 19, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. John Blankenhagen

    12% chance of finding something, then its 6 trillion miles away...

    February 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ken

    "The planet Kepler-10b, shown in the photo above"

    ROTFL

    February 19, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sunspot

    CNN – that isn't a photo, you idiots!!!!

    February 19, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      it's a photo of a painting..

      February 19, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. LouAz

    No telescopes anywhere without Govt Funding. See .
    As long as the Flat Earth Repubs control the House (where all budgets start) it is unlikely that anything that could make us smarter has a chance. Onward Christian Soldiers . . . marching back to the Dark Ages. You betcha !

    February 19, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • LouAz

      I put in the link to spaceflightnow, which has a Webb Telescope funding "report". The thought police removed it.
      So much for freedom of the press . . .

      February 19, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. RUFFNUTT

    how come in star trek the have replicators and no-one smokes weed? i'd be cloning up the baddest weed ever..

    February 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • matt

      Probably because by then, stupid people will probably all be dead.

      February 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. stonemason89

    James Webb Space Telescope? That wasn't named after Senator James Webb, was it?

    February 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunspot

      James E. Webb, Director of NASA 1961-68. The Golden Age of NASA.

      February 19, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JD Stone

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

    Really? Extraterrestrial life can only exist on planets with Earthlike conditions? :-/

    Omg, CNN. Do you have no editorial control, fact checking, nor follow simple logic?
    The author doesn't explain how it is that extraterrestrials must live on planets

    February 19, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Electro-Cute

      There is only one known type of lifeforms ( water/oxygen/coal/ etc) and the science behind it is based on the lifeforms found on earth.

      In that context it makes sense to search for other planets like Earth right now.

      If you got an insanely better idea and can prove it I'm sure NASA wants to hear from you.

      February 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunspot

      Simple logic: Space is a vacuum. Makes it tough to breathe...

      February 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy

    @Mmmmm: I meant skulk. Look it up.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      no, whatchoo mean? banasy-bil, you talking to me?

      February 19, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
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