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. ZeroWing

    All your base are belong to us.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. katie

    i love these types of articles and all the comments are great, SB thanks for all the great insight. i honestly don't know much about planets and what not but i find it absolutely fascinating. thanks everyone for all your opinions and the great article. i will never get tired of learing about anything about space.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Geoff

    Gee, I can't wait to leave this planet. By the time I retire, our species may have used up all of the world's resources... don't worry though, we'll just mine for metals in mines that are thousands of miles deep. No problemo. Rising sea levels, less food and more people, I wonder what happened to other intelligent beings, if the existed. The probably wiped themselves out.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. katie

    thank you star trek

    February 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sir Osis of Liver

    As far as alien life is concerned, please remember Clarke's 3 classifications of such life: 1. Life as we know it. 2. Life as we don't know it but can imagine it. 3. Life as we can't even imagine it. Who's to say where such life will be found if there is any to be found at all. We just don't know enough yet. The Drake equation, even though incomplete, can only compute values assigned to each segment, and you can assign any values you want. So, for now, it, like everything else used to try to determine the probability of Life Out There, is nothing more than an educated guess, but still just a guess.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Code Red

      I think there should be a further classification of Clarke's 3 classifications of such life:
      A. FOR WHICH WE WILL EVENTUALLY DISCOVER 1. Life as we know it. 2. Life as we don't know it but can imagine it. 3. Life as we can't even imagine it.
      and
      B. FOR WHICH WE WILL NEVER DISCOVER 1. Life as we know it. 2. Life as we don't know it but can imagine it. 3. Life as we can't even imagine it.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. John

    If were a random result of the big bang then other planets can surely have the same result. The universe is teaming with life.

    February 19, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. chris

    With our present technology there is no way we will ever reach any of these planets in our or our ancestors lifetimes. Nice to think about, but not really worth the resources we waste on trying to find or contact ET.

    February 19, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      what are we going to do when we contact et anyways?

      "hey et..what's up? how the weather there? cool.. you guys have grey's anatomy also there? hey et.. got some money i can borrow? we owe this china dude 15trillion dollars.. i swear im good for it.."

      February 19, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Electro-Cute

      Discovery is the grand prize, expanding the "collective conciousness" of humanity and refining technology; affecting both in ways you can't possibly predict.

      For instance: It may give you proof that life on earth is very special indeed or it will give you proof that it isn't. That can change how you see yourself, the human race's "general development", the way you look on religion and your own "relationship with nature". Because, now you KNOW, you DON'T believe and make guesses any more. Isn't that worth something? I say, it is worth everything.

      Conclusion: It's the knowledge that is worth everything, not dollars. Dollars is just only the means to get you there, to a new level if you want.

      That is why I live. I want to know. I don't want to die as an ignorant fool – especially when I know that I live in a time when I got the chance to really learn something about life, universe and everything. 😉

      February 19, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • yummy earthings

      See you already lost, you are defeated in your imagination and desire to know the truth. I would hope we manage contact with ,then establish a base communication system, then with luck they could provide easy instructions for building a effective ship for interstellar travel. IF at all there are life forms capable of getting off their planets in the first place.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Code Red

      There is a school of thought that we owe it to the future - even if it is 10,000 years in the future - to keep moving forward with the idea of discovering life in distant planet - even if we will never know of the results. If we don't start now then the answer will never be known. The only real bond that we would have with people that far out is the most basic human bond but that is no reason not to try.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Harold J Belt

      We've already missed the opportunity to get there in our "ancestors" lifetime, perhaps though, our descendants of future generations will gain the knowledge for travel to distant star systems, may even be that it will be ET that shows us the way!

      February 20, 2011 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
  8. helenecha

    They must be miracles before we are on the way homes.

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

    Damn! There are some very intelligent posts here. Shocking! Almost gives me hope in the human race. Ok, not much. But this would never happen at Yahoo...

    February 19, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      like a true christian scientologist

      February 20, 2011 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  10. banasy

    MmmmmmHmmmmm, yes, I am, otay?

    @RUFFNUTT: LMAO!

    February 19, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cosmic

    Can we really even take modern scientist of todays time seriously ? I mean come on lets be for real here, ancient man had more understanding of the universe/planets then so called modern scientists. These scientist are just feeding the population with non sense, the universe is filled with life.

    February 19, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. RUFFNUTT

    what if e.t. was a total wierdo? like his planet was a total p.o.s. and he wanted to come here and live of us? would we give him free health care and stuff?

    February 19, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Thinker

      He would have to either marry an American, qualify for political assylum, be super-talented, or hide in the hotel industry.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. The Thinker

    I, for one, would like to see DoD starting to spend some of those big bucks for a vessel to visit some of these otherworlds. After all, the case could be made that one or more of these worlds could present a threat to our country... might as well find out now, right?

    February 20, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  14. Mike H

    "....The planet Kepler-10b, shown in the photo above...." That's some "photo". Had to get up real close to that planet to achieve that perspective.

    February 20, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
  15. rob

    200 to 400 billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. We are definitely not alone in the cosmos.

    February 20, 2011 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
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