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. TahitiSucks

    Fantastic news. As this rate we may be able to kill god once and for all before the 21st century's done.

    February 20, 2011 at 5:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. buffoon

    If god exists, I'd challenge him/her to a masturbation contest! What's life without some fun! 🙂

    February 20, 2011 at 5:45 am | Report abuse |
    • buffoon

      Of course, while discussing the various civilizations...

      February 20, 2011 at 5:46 am | Report abuse |
    • puppo

      I'm no Jesus freak, but good thing you don't believe in blasphemy.

      February 20, 2011 at 6:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. Tony Rozycki

    If there's a hostile invasion from a technologically superior civilization, the surprise might not be so pleasant!!

    February 20, 2011 at 5:50 am | Report abuse |
  4. BT

    OK, this article is just.... completely awful and misleading. I'm a researcher in this field and I MUST offer criticism. First of all, only one of these planets has been "confirmed" the others are all just candidate - and the confirmed ones are all much closer to their parent star than Mercury. Secondly, the probability of detecting an Earth/Sun system with Kepler is WAY WAY LESS than 12% - it's less than 1%, actually, just take the diameter of the Sun and divide by the Earth-Sun distance. Had the author done any background reading at all, he/she would know that.

    February 20, 2011 at 5:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. KnowEvolution

    Evolution:
    aol forums –> CNN comments

    February 20, 2011 at 6:14 am | Report abuse |
  6. Carl

    I'm not trying to be rude but I'm rather curious to get a religious perspective on this. I've always wondered how with the vast amount of galaxies and stars: why do you think your God made this all for you? Why do you think you're so special?

    February 20, 2011 at 6:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Beth

      Personally I think religion is rather irrelevant on this. It's a matter of evidence, a scientific quest to understand our universe/world/reality. God doesn't have anything to do with it. Unless you want to look at all the data/results and think that it all originated from God, and WOW how amazing! Another person can look at the same stuff and think WOW astronomy is amazing! To me, either viewpoint is cool (but of course only one is backed up by evidence... that matters to a lot of people ...and not at all to others). As far as people who think God made everything for *them*/mankind/some specific group... that's just dark-ages backward ignorance and conceit.

      February 20, 2011 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Well, would you rather be reincarnate on Earth or other planets? Now is the time to do research.

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

    The odds are so against us being alone. And there may be civilizations as advanced as we are, less so, and even one million more advanced than us. The advanced ones must think us such fools they way we act toward each other, and our environment. It's the only environment we have after all.
    Still, I find it comforting to know we are most likely far from alone.

    February 20, 2011 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      You contradict yourself. If we're not alone, then we have more planets to migrate to.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
  8. curios

    hei... hei..... hei..... what have we got here.... exoplanets ...??????

    the harder to find another habitable planet, the better the forbidden fruits will taste....
    ... don't forget it took almost a year or more for ancient people to travel to Borneo Island (where head-hunters rule, mind you those days) in such inefficient huge wooden sampan.. (alright, call it a ship if you want).

    in time to come, we will find a way to those exoplanets.... the news itself is enough to get some of our juice going....
    ... still should travel to such exoplanet be possible (very possible) i definitely would bring along a religious book (esp the big book). it will keep us meaningfully sane on such long journey.... (esp on the 1st few trips) on a very very inefficient space-travel craft made of huge metal & plastic......

    February 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      If you're on my ship, I would kill you and burn your bible so you don't infect other peaceful living beings.

      February 20, 2011 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  9. hmmm

    the reason why we havent seen ufo is because they travel beyond the speed of light.. if they can travel great distances, therefore they could travel faster than the speed of light.. with this, our own naked eyes and optical telescopes wont even find it because it relies on light.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  10. norwegian bjoern

    NASA plays metroid. you wont find anything : life, lol.
    I wish i had better math grades.
    and other grades.
    you guys would be so much better.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bleh

    I *hope* there's intelligent life "out there". I sure as h3ll am having a hard time finding any here on *Earth*!

    February 20, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  12. soliton

    How would one build a faster than light spaceship? Any plausible theories, conjectures?

    February 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUFFNUTT

      you build a ship inside the ship then when the ship gets almost to the speed of light it fires the inside ship outside the ship and the ship goes faster than the speed of light..

      or just put a roller camshaft in the spaceshuttle and take the cadilitic converters off and run straight pipes..

      February 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. You.Ok

    I think researching for extraterrestrials live is very important for our future.
    If we stop researching it, we loose chance to meet them.

    February 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Justina

    God forbid this unregenerate greedy Adamic race contaminate any other planet. Planet Earth suffered too much under us. Mankind must get the Final Judgment on this planet for all the innocent blood shed and destroyed.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Clay

    It would be nice if they would check out the seven main stars of Orion and identify those with planets. A little more of a wow factor when you can look up and easily pick out the stars with companions.

    February 21, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
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