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. James

    The assumption is that "other life" need the same requirements we do.

    February 20, 2011 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  2. Dugudr

    We are not unique. We're from Earth and Earth are from dust of supernova, and all stars are fueled the same way.

    February 20, 2011 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. Michael

    The psychology of these message boards is more fascinating than the article itself. You have those that are truly interested and excited about discussing a topic and then walk away, expectations crushed. You have those that make comments with extreme levels of confidence with out any science behind it (kind of like when they said the Earth was flat and you'd fall into space). And then you have those that prey on the first posters they can find with some sort of error, in an effort to make themselves look smarter and more confident. And the circle goes on and on. LOL

    February 20, 2011 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Code Red

      very accurate observation

      February 20, 2011 at 1:19 am | Report abuse |
    • mcore

      Extremely accurate. And it doesn't seem to matter what kind of a story it is.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • ZweiStein

      Michael....Please..we've asked you before, now I must insist that you not mention, you know, "earth/flat," many people would panic. Please consider the consequences of your deeds. BTW, why is Atlas carrying a round, globe-like earth?

      February 20, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
  4. ZweiStein

    OK....Let them visit for awhile........but I don't want to hear about any of that anchor baby stuff from them. Christ, before you know it, they'll bring all their relatives to EARTH. They'll do the jobs the illegals won't.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  5. Aldiggy2000

    When are we gonna get off our asses and start building The Star Ship Enterprise?

    February 20, 2011 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  6. Kepler 10b Alien

    Greetings, earthlings. We have no gold or sugar. Please stay away.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ryan

    The discussion about life and whether or not their is hope for an intelligent form of it due to the lack of signals being recieved is errenous. The nearest star is between 1000 to 3000 lightyears away, which means a signal traveling at the speed of light (faster than any signal we currently have) would take 1,000 to 3,000 years to reach us. Viewing the star from Earth also gives us an image of the goings on of that star / planet up to 3,000 years ago. If someone on that planet viewed Earth 3,000 years ago they would find little to see besides small, unsophisticated civilizations. We also lacked the ability to send any signals during the time of ancient Egypt. Even if we could, the signal would have spread out so far, traveling as it would in all directions, that the actual meaning of it would be lost over time. Perhaps the "reruns of 'I Love Lucy'" could be heard by a distant ship, but the transmission and video images would be so garbled and incomplete that they would be composed mainly of static. Hense, we could could be listening to extraterestrial signals right now in our static and not know it unless we knew exactly what to look for and exactly how to decode it. (impossibility).

    February 20, 2011 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ryan

    p.s.: The above statement is also assumed that the nearest star has life. If it does not, as it likely does not, then the distance and issues involved grow exponentially! It is however interesting to know that the past is in a way alive in the stars (We currently view planets and stars from millions of years ago). Some Supernovas that we witness here on earth in their initial explosive phases have in reality already exploded and disapeared into a nebula.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  9. alan

    If the people at CCN don't know the difference between a photo and a drawing of a distant star how can we trust anything in their article. A lazy, arrogant press is a large part of America's problem today.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • mcore

      Alan, you're being incredibly lazy by letting something so trivial derail you from the real issues. If you don't like this article, go find one on the same subject from a source you trust. How about NASA? They've got a good site. How about the Jet Propulsion Lab in California? They're site is awesome.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
  10. Code Red

    Can anyone answer this: has NASA ever put into effect or thought of just sending out a exploration unit that would just keep moving away from earth forever (say nuclear powered) and would send back information (data and pictures) forever as it travels to the outer reaches of the universe? Not a mission to one of our planets or an asteroid belt in our solar system but a mission that would never end and gather data for infinity. Why has this not been done? It shouldn't matter that much of the data wouldn't get to us for generations but we should at least get it started. Has this been attempted?

    February 20, 2011 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
    • mcore

      Yes! Sort of. The Pioneer and Voyager missions visited the outer planets in the 70s and 80s but were designed to continue working well after they had left the solar system. I don't know if they are working still – but I did hear fairly recently that at least one of the Voyagers was still sending back information. It's very hard to keep a spacecraft working for so long. Their nuclear fuel runs low, they get extremely cold, they are frequently hit by objects floating out there, etc. Not to mention the transit time out of our solar system is measured in decades. It's an awesome idea for a mission, though. And I'd be willing to bet one is on the drawing board.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. ajz


    February 20, 2011 at 1:45 am | Report abuse |
    • BreakingNewsBlog - HPad3D - PortablePay - Sat3D.TV - FaceAnswers ...

      I'm not surprised of that ... it's what I believe from over 30 years just applying simple logic
      comments about the (already failed) """Google""" Lunar X Prize in this WIRED Science article:

      February 20, 2011 at 2:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Shibbypimp

      How dumb do they think people are? disclosure is comencing. just look up steven greer MD, Disclosure project 2011 on youtube. he has credentials as to where his grandfather designed the lunar module that landed on the moon in the 60's.

      February 20, 2011 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |

      I want to live next to LAVA LAKE....location location location. Going get nice price for it one day.

      February 20, 2011 at 6:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Nim_Nim

      Hah! Like the media and or scientists of the day are willing and ready to just hand out information all willy-Nilly. They'll hide it from the taxpayers as long as humanly possible. Greed is they're utmost priority. There's no way these programs are going to be, *ahem* "Disclosed" easily.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Justina

    The sheer distance among stars indicate that the present mankind on earth mean to only dream, speculate and gaze upon but not to come in contact with other planets. Present universe is on a very temporary status as well. Isaiah 66:22 and Revelation 21:1

    February 20, 2011 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Ricky

      "you are an idiot."
      -Ricky, 1:13AM

      February 20, 2011 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
    • frank caliendo

      those verses dont have anything to do with that, chief

      February 20, 2011 at 3:39 am | Report abuse |

      All religous morons are scared of science because it proves them wrong EVERY TIME. For example. People seriously believed god created a flat world and people were put to death when they challenged this idea. The first explorer was an awesome person who used science to blow the bible out of the water. Hazzah, take that fool.

      February 20, 2011 at 3:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      You do realize we have sent several reconnaissance probes to other plants, not to mention 5 space craft which will pass by other solar systems.

      February 20, 2011 at 4:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      The great thing about science is... its true whether or not you believe it.

      February 20, 2011 at 4:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Justina

      Guys, it's up to you to gaze into the space around the Earth all you want, but I think people with brain should really work on how to feed every human well on earth, how to preserve every unborn human and the creation world on earth, and how to prevent the spreading of immorality of the West. The Bible does talk about bending of space, but it isn't for space travel of present mankind. HOTDOG-, you just revealed your ignorance on science, religion and history. The Bible has been proven right by science and archaeology for all time, the reason 2/3 people on earth trust the Bible rather than those science fiction writers who claim to be scientists.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
  13. Manny

    This protest wont end in the middle east, people will seek true freedom
    change is coming soon

    February 20, 2011 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      What article are you reading??? This one is about science? We'll forward it on to them.

      February 20, 2011 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. MCR

    2 comments on the article:

    1. The choice of the word inhabitable was probably poor, sounds like inhospitable and the context is similar.
    2. That picture above the article is NOT a photo, it's an artist's conception

    Anyways other than those to things, good article, nice to see some mroe science stuff on CNN. Unfortunate that you need to tell people the world circles the sun 3 times in 3 years.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      You mean " other than those two things"? just kidding, I do agree with you though

      February 20, 2011 at 3:18 am | Report abuse |
  15. jonny

    how do you people know that maybe some of this places are far more older and advanced than earth, maybe higher civilazations with advance technology no longer residing in a 3Dimensional reality?
    people with knowlege know this could be possible, research it.

    February 20, 2011 at 1:55 am | Report abuse |
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