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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soundoff (325 Responses)
  1. RICK

    Where's Mr Spock when we need him ? !!!

    February 20, 2011 at 2:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Spock

      It is illogical for you to shout, as I am right here. How might I be of assistance?

      February 21, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
  2. NewRome

    So we have a powerful telescope but no way to get there. I hope we can also invest and work hard on interstellar travel technologies.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:14 am | Report abuse |
  3. Sir Osis of Liver

    As far as contacting E.T. (or, rather, our failure to do so) here is my OPINION. We are now at a tech. level which can be compared to a tribe of aboriginal indians in the Amozon rainforest who have never been in contact with the rest of the world. They are unaware of the tremendouse amount of info around them being broadcast on radio and TV. Alien civilizations are indeed comunicating with each other, but by a method we, as yet, know nothing of. Indeed, our science says such forms of communications are impossible, just as the Head Witch Doctor of the indians would say that radio was impossible. The breakthrough that will occur sometime in the not-so-distant future will suddenly put us in contact with more E.T.'s than we will know what to do with. So why should they bother trying to talk to us with something as primitive as radio. They know that sooner or later we will find a better way to talk. I only hope it occurs in my lifetime.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
    • V Saxena

      Mine too, bruh. As I smoker, I got about 20 more years, so hurry up already, NASA!

      February 20, 2011 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Robear in Ojai

      E.T.s will want to contact us because we live on the only planet in the universe where there is chocolate...

      February 20, 2011 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
  4. Sir Osis of Liver

    Add on to my last: I think also that they might feel that if we CAN'T or WON'T develop this means of communication, we're not worth talking to anyway.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
  5. Steve

    "And note that the probability of having found our own particular planet using Kepler technology is only 12%"

    Very informative...I got a lot of info out of that sentence.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Doogle


      February 20, 2011 at 5:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. Nate

    3000 light years! think about what has happened on our planet in 3000 years. We are seeing the light of those planets from 3000 years ago. I agree with "Sir Osis of Liver" just think where we would be if we hadn't gone through the dark ages or been struck with the plague in Europe. We might have 100-300 extra years of development. We didn't even know radiation existed till the early to mid 1900's just think what else is out there that we have no way to measure. Do aliens exist? Yes! Are they more advanced than us? maybe. Will we ever overcome the vast distances of the universe to meet them? Less likely.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Your comments are worthless.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  7. visitorsGonehome

    having sampled the solid, fluid, and gaseous components of this planet, and the variety of hydraulic, electrical, and nuclear activity here we have concluded that there is no intelligent life here. We also must report that, given the
    properties of those components and activities, intelligent life is unlikely to evolve over time. While there appears to be
    evolving life forms here, this planet can not support those life forms long enough for anything resembling intelligence
    to develop.
    Final report from this location. Departure on schedule......

    February 20, 2011 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
    • MargieP

      I am putting this comment as top of my list for my epitaph.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Electrician_in_the_Hindu_Kush

      best comment ever!

      February 21, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  8. Alert U

    At present time it comes down to an accept factor or a belief factor. Accept the fact that the earth is 4000 million years old or belief it is 6000 years old. Otherwise belief it is 4.5 billion years old or accepts as fact it was made 6000 years ago. In the midst of this we are quashed in an agnostic dilemma. A scientist who cannot deny it is unlikely an earth being made as the first unit in the universe would have needed to wait 4 years before Adam saw the light of the nearest star, or the most we can possible see is light 6000 years old, yet we can see light from distant galaxies much further. The dilemma is not to upset a growing political and religious movement which is seemingly comfortable to accept such restrictions of scientific developments. It is this war between Christian right-wings and Muslim fundamentalist is the dilemma.

    February 20, 2011 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. Kevin

    "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."

    I REALLY dislike scientists making any sort of guesses about planets they cannot see. If you're going to say it DOES have liquid lakes of lava you'd better back up why you say that – especially in an article that has said we won't be seeing these planets anytime soon.

    February 20, 2011 at 3:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Beth

      It's not the researchers/scientists who said that. It's a paraphrase by the author of *this* article. They have to make the material easy to understand for those not educated about astronomy/chemistry/biology, and in doing so, make major mistakes. Do you see any direct quotes other than the one at the very end of the article? 'Cos I don't.

      If the general population were more proficient in basic science, the dumbing-down would not be necessary, and the information wouldn't be completely mangled by the time it gets to us. This is especially true of those who report on science for MSM outlets.

      For example, the 12% chance Kepler would have of finding Earth... is mostly due to angle. Kepler can only detect planets that pass in front of their star from Kepler's point of view. If the planet[s] is going round at the opposite "angle", like the numbers on a clock with the star being in the very center, it would not be detectable.

      February 20, 2011 at 5:42 am | Report abuse |
  10. Gerry

    They died?

    February 20, 2011 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
  11. Raj

    Perhaps all the many thousands of UFO sightings, as well as actual sightings of alien beings, that have been reported by many people around the world for over the last 60 years are evidence of extraterrestrials having visited this planet. The question with UFOs that still exists, is: why, if they have visited us and have been seen by many individuals, have they not made 'open' contact? That is, why do they remain largely hidden, showing themselves only occasionally to a few people on occasion; why do they not show themselves openly to the larger world, or make 'formal' contact with humans?

    One possible answer is that they are monitoring us, from a distance, but they have a 'policy' of non-interference with a less-developed people. This is only one possible answer. I think it would still be an unfortunate situation if this were the reason.

    However, I believe that the many thousands, if not millions of eyewitness accounts of UFOs by many credible people is extremely strong evidence that extraterrestrials or visitors from other worlds have visited us and are still here visiting this planet. Many UFO sightings are of objects or craft that have characteristics and capabilities that are very different from what we know exists and much more advanced than what humans are currently capable of. Also, there are many (even thousands) of detailed accounts of people claiming to have witnessed actual 'alien' beings. These accounts are available through the extensive UFO literature that exists, though some of it is sometimes difficult to obtain or get access to, since some of it is out of print.

    One more opinion: It doesn't seem to make much sense, to me, to ask the question, "Why haven't they visted us?', and then at the same time to deny or dismiss the possibly of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) being real and having an extraterrestrial source; and to not be willing to look at or consider the evidence of UFOs. They question 'Why haven't they visited us?', as asked by a senior NASA scientist of the Kepler mission, as well as the great physicist Enrico Fermi, who originally asked a similar question 'Where is everybody?" (now known as the Fermi Paradox), assumes two things: First, that there are other civilizations in our galaxy; and Second, that they have the ability to travel here. The ability to travel here, to Earth, assumes one more thing: that it is 'possible' to travel here, which also implies that the speed of light limit is not an absolute barrier to one civilization being able to travel to another star system. Also, it is possible, if not likely, that if other civilizations are much more older than ours, then their science and technology would be much more advanced than ours (thousands or more years advanced); so it is possible, if not likely, that they would have figured out how to go faster than the speed of light, or to bypass the speed of light limit. And this means this we should not ignore, dismiss, or deny the possibility that UFOs might be of extraterrestrial origin.

    Many UFO sightings, reports, and cases are very detailed and thorough; they have been well researched and investigated, and many of these reports are close-range sightings (seen up-close and very clearly) of these objects, as well of 'alien' beings.

    Thank you.

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

      Have you ever considered the possibility that the ET's are inter-dimensional travelers? That we are never really alone, but cannot see beyond our 3rd dimension?
      Its time we humans did a little inward research rather than try to expand outward.

      February 20, 2011 at 3:30 am | Report abuse |
  12. Frenchy

    Why are scientists wasting time and money looking for other earth-like planets when we have a crap-load of problems here on Earth? Are humans planing to ditch the Earth now that it's been trashed and it's resources severely depleted for another planet they can ruin?

    February 20, 2011 at 3:26 am | Report abuse |

      I'm sure there were plenty of problems in Europe when Chris Columbus set out on his voyages! Actually there have been many advances in our technology,used on Earth,due to the space program.Finally,it is interesting that Stephen Hawking,among others,have pointed out that our establishing colonies on other planets is the only sure way of protecting humanity from the next extinction disaster,presumably a giant asteroid or the sun going nova.

      February 20, 2011 at 4:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Perhaps because the development of space technology has consistently had massive economic payoffs. Sputnick was the precursor to the 13,000 commercial satellites in orbit today. Technology from the apollo missions is secured American technological superiority for decades. Morose, the amount of money we put into the space program absolutely pales in comparison to what we spend on the military, and interest on the national debt. Oh and perhaps the hundreds of thousands of people who are still living thanks to orbital hurricane and storm tracking would like to have a word with you about "real world problems"

      February 20, 2011 at 4:30 am | Report abuse |
    • YourKnotFrench

      "Why are scientists wasting time and money...when we have a crap-load of problems here on Earth?"

      Science has solved a brown pile load of Earth-bound problems.
      It gave "Frenchy" the Internet, the ability to post anonymously, & something to do at 3AM.

      February 20, 2011 at 6:10 am | Report abuse |

      Yes. Our problem here IS that we have to find a way off of this planet eventually if our species is to survive.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  13. Joe

    statistically the probability of life in the universe must go up significantly every time a new planet is found.. that in itself is exciting about the potential prospects that life does exist beyond earth..and someday .. it will be proven..

    February 20, 2011 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
  14. JER

    The Earth goes around the Sun exactly once each year? More proof of intelligent design!

    February 20, 2011 at 4:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Tyokol

      Actually I am a physicist currently working in a project to develop a device to capture and restrain God. It will be the largest ransom ever collected. The small group of us who is working in this mega project will retire in our own continent soon.

      February 20, 2011 at 5:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tyokol

    For all the idiots out there who believe in flying saucers: they don't exist so find another obsession.

    February 20, 2011 at 5:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Raj

      How do you know that UFOs don't exist?

      February 20, 2011 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Raj

      How do you know that 'flying saucers' don't exist? In fact, they very could and probably do exist. Many people support this idea. Just because you haven't seen one doesn't mean that they don't exist, or that other people have not seen one. Also, have you ever looked at any of the good quality cases or evidence? Or are you just stating your own personal opinion without having looked at any evidence or research on this topic?

      What is wrong with the idea of 'flying saucers' as you call them, or UFOs, i.e. Unidentifed Flying Objects? The scientist with the Kepler mission just asked the question 'Why haven't they visited us?', meaning that he believes that extraterrestrials SHOULD be visiting us, and implying that they CAN be visiting us?

      February 20, 2011 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Raj

      There are several governments of countries in the world who are currently studying the UFO subject, including Chile, Peru, Brazil, (possibly Argetina) and France. The UK government had an office to study UFOs until recently. The most significant, perhaps, is France. There, the official French space agency known as CNES, which is their equivalent of NASA, actually has a program (called GEPAN) that has been studying UFOs for the last several decades, and is headed by professional scientists. The last three directors of this program who are PhD scientists have all supported the idea that UFOs are real and possibly (or probably) of extraterrestrial origin. The current director recently stated that he believes the extraterrestrial explanation for UFOs is a likely explanation. The United States government had an official program to study UFOs for over twenty years, until 1969, called Project Blue Book, which was within the U.S. Air Force. The main scientific consultant to this project was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who 'believed' that UFOs are 'real', based on his research and investigation of UFO cases.

      February 20, 2011 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Raj

      There are some prominent scientists (all who have Ph.D.s) who have supported the idea of UFOs being real, worthy of study, and possibly of extraterrestrial origin. Peter Sturrock, who is a senior astrophysicist at St-anford University and served as the Director of the Center for Space Science and Astrophysics.

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