Tag Archives: Kepler telescope

NASA Scientists find 20 potentially habitable planets

Trick or treat? NASA’s Halloween gift really is something everyone should be excited of. Astronomers have discovered a trove of 20 planets, some of which seem very Earth-like.

The latest catalog represents Kepler’s final survey from the Cygnus constellation and spans the spacecraft’s first four years of data. The Kepler spacecraft has detected 219 new exoplanet candidates – and ten could be habitable. Image credits: NASA.

The findings were made by the Kepler telescope and feature several planets orbiting stars much like our Sun. Their orbits vary between 18 and 395 Earth days, with the 395-day planet being one of the most promising candidates. It’s 97 percent the size of Earth, but a bit farther from its star, meaning it’s almost certainly colder. This would translate into more Arctic or tundra-like areas, but all things being equal, it would still be able to hold liquid water — the main prerequisite for life as we know it.

All planets are between 20 and 50 percent larger than Earth by diameter, and all of them orbit the M dwarf star K2-72 some 181 light years away. K2-72 is an M-type star that is approximately 27% the mass of and 33% the radius of the Sun. Its name comes from being the 72nd star discovered by the K2 (2nd Kepler) mission.

Kepler employs the transit method, which involves detecting dips in brightness in stars (as one planet passes between its star and the telescope, there’s a dip in luminosity). These dips in brightness can be interpreted as planets whose orbits move in front of their stars from the perspective of Earth.

Scientists are “between 70 and 80 percent” certain that these are solid Earth-like candidates. The main cause of uncertainty is the long orbit time of these planets. All the data comes from the original Kepler mission, which means that we’ve only seen these planets once or twice, and the signal could be a bit wobbly. Having more data points from other observatories could allow researchers to confirm these planets. Even if they turn out to be fake, such errors allow researchers to calibrate their data for future measurements.

I believe that this is a much improved catalogue so I’m eager to explore it further,” says Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Lab at Arecibo Observatory.

So far, the Kepler telescope has done an amazing job. Kepler is a space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars in 2009. The NASA mission has discovered over 4,000 potential planet candidates, some 2,300 of which have been already confirmed by other observations. Out of these, 21 are Earth-sized and in the so-called habitable zone. Data from the Kepler telescope is publicly available, open for anyone to access. As researchers comb through it more and more, we can almost certainly expect more exciting findings.

Journal Reference: Susan E. Thompson et al. Planetary Candidates Observed by Kepler. VIII. A Fully Automated Catalog With Measured Completeness and Reliability Based on Data Release 25. 

Earth-sized planets all have relatively circular orbits, study finds

For decades, researchers have studied our planet’s orbit with growing interest: is there something special about the way the Earth revolves around the Sun, is it a necessary condition for life to emerge? A team of researchers from MIT studied 74 Earth-sized exoplanets and reports that all of them have fairly circular orbits around their stars.

Circular vs Eccentric

Image courtesy of NASA.

The study, published in the Astrophysical Journal, reports that the 74 exoplanets revolve their 28 stars at relatively circular trajectory, standing in stark contrast to larger exoplanets, which have much more eccentric orbits.

“Twenty years ago, we only knew about our solar system, and everything was circular and so everyone expected circular orbits everywhere,” says Vincent Van Eylen, a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Physics. “Then we started finding giant exoplanets, and we found suddenly a whole range of eccentricities, so there was an open question about whether this would also hold for smaller planets. We find that for small planets, circular is probably the norm.”

It’s not clear why this happens, or whether this has something to do with with their size, or whether it’s a coincidence. Having a circular orbit is one of the proposed requirements for supporting life; otherwise, the climatic swings between seasons are simply too massive. It’s not impossible for life to exist on planets with eccentric orbits, but it just seems much more unlikely.

“If eccentric orbits are common for habitable planets, that would be quite a worry for life, because they would have such a large range of climate properties,” Van Eylen says. “But what we find is, probably we don’t have to worry too much because circular cases are fairly common.”

All in all, the study brings good news for detecting life outside our solar system.

Detecting Planets

Artistic representation of the Kepler Telescope. Image via Wikipedia.

Artistic representation of the Kepler Telescope. Image via Wikipedia.

Most earth-sized planets are detected with the transit method – astronomers study the light given off by a star and record eventual dips in starlight when a planet transits in front of that star. To obtain actual transit data, the team looked through data collected over the past four years by NASA’s Kepler telescope. Kepler is a space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. The telescope monitored the brightness of over 145,000 stars, only a fraction of which have been studied in detail. For this study, they focused on 28 stars orbited by 74 earth-like planets.

Their results came out pretty surprising: all the planets run (approximately) circular orbits around their stars.

“We found that most of them matched pretty closely, which means they’re pretty close to being circular,” Van Eylen says. “We are very certain that if very high eccentricities were common, we would’ve seen that, which we don’t.”

However, David Kipping, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, notes that while interesting, a 74 planets sample size is not large enough to draw some definite conclusions.

“I think that the evidence for smaller planets having more circular orbits is presently tentative,” says Kipping, who was not involved in the research. “It prompts us to investigate this question in more detail and see whether this is indeed a universal trend, or a feature of the small sample considered.”

The logical thing to do next is study more planets and see if these initial results stand up. Kepler has a huge database, and much of that data hasn’t been studied to begin with. Just decades ago we didn’t know any exoplanets, and now we’re studying the orbits of exoplanets and we want a greater sample size – it’s a great time to be alive.





NASA reports the first Earth-sized Exoplanet in the Habitable Zone

Artist’s rendition of Kepler-186f – just 10% larger than Earth.

Remember a few days ago, when I was telling you about the big conference NASA had planned for today? Well, they sure didn’t disappoint! The team of astrophysicists from the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center have just reported a major milestone: for the first time, they have found an Earth-sized planet at the right distance from its star – right enough to potentially sustain water, in the so-called habitable zone.

“This is a historic discovery,” says Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the research, “it’s the best case for a habitable planet yet found.”

The discovery was made using the Kepler telescope, and it crowns a myriad of valuable findings obtained with the device.  The Kepler telescope tracked roughly 150,000 stars in a small patch of sky, searching for stars that dim at regular intervals as planets pass in front of them; Sadly, the telescope is crippled now, but even though it’s not active  astronomers still comb through the data, finding awesome things like this.

The planet, Kepler-186f is almost the same size as the Earth – just 10% bigger. It rotates a red dwarf star (M dwarf), one roughly half the size of our sun, but close enough to compensate for that difference. It orbits its star every 130 days, and inhabits the chillier end of its star’s habitable zone.

“The temperature on the planet is likely cool, similar to dawn or dusk on a spring day,” Marcy says.

More than 70% of all the planets in the Milky Way Galaxy are red M-dwarfs, and that sheer abundance makes them good targets for uncovering Earth-like planets.

“If we’re going to find any signs of life in the next few decades, it will most likely will be a planet in the habitable zone of an M-dwarf,” says Quintana.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, the habitable zone, colloquially known as the Goldilocks zone, is the area around a star where there is sufficient pressure for planets to support liquid water at their surfaces, and the temperature is just right for water to exist in its liquid form – not evaporating, and not freezing. Life as we know it cannot exist without liquid water.

“We definitely think it’s one step closer to finding a true Sun–Earth analogue,” says study co-author Elisa Quintana, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field.

It’s different enough to call it a cousin more than a brother, but the two planets definitely have some similarities, but there’s still a lot astrophysicists have to figure out about it. The main argument against life on its surface would be that anything living on Kepler-186f would have to withstand large doses of radiation from its star; to clarify things a little bit: the planet is in the habitable area, which means that might support water, which means that it might have or at least support life.

“We can say it’s probably rocky,” says Tom Barclay, an astrophysicist with the NASA Ames Research Center team. “And because the planet is closer to its star, its days are likely much longer than those on Earth.” As for the planet’s atmosphere, composition, and whether it harbors liquid water, nobody can say. “And it’s important to note that just because this planet is in the habitable zone—that it could support water—that doesn’t mean that it is habitable,” he says.

There are still many variables which come into play, and while astronomers are excited about this, they still have many questions.

“Things have to line up just right,” Coughlin says, “so when we do find something exciting like this planet, that tells us that there’s a lot more out there. We’ve found one, but that means there’s hundreds more.”

Still, while this planet may or may not support life, it’s the best chance we’ve got so far – at leasat outside of our solar system.


Artist impression of HD 189733 b and its parent star. Photo: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI

New, more precise method to measure exoplanet mass

In the past two decades alone, some 900 exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – have been identified, with some 2300 more in queue. Most of these were confirmed using the now discontinued Kepler space telescope. It’s remarkable how much scientists can find out about a distant plant, hundreds of light years away, simply by studying how light emitted by its parent star is manipulated (absorbed, reflected, tugged). For instance, researchers can establish properties like mass, planet and atmosphere composition, surface temperature and more.

As one can imagine, these readings are far from being extremely accurate. A team of researchers at MIT recently made a significant contribution to exoplanet hunting after they demonstrated a new method for assessing exoplanet mass, which they claim should be more accurate. The method is particularly useful for establishing the mass of smaller planets orbiting dimmer stars, something that currently renders skewed results using other methods. Having an accurate reading of a planet’s mass is extremely important since mass influences all the other parameters used to characterize a planet.

“The reason is that the mass of a planet is connected to its internal and atmospheric structure and it affects its cooling, its plate tectonics, magnetic field generation, outgassing, and atmospheric escape,” IT graduate student Julien de Wit said. “Understanding a planet is like dealing with a huge puzzle where knowing the mass is one of the corner pieces, which you really need to get started.”

A new way to measure mass

Artist impression of HD 189733 b and its parent star. Photo: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI

Artist impression of HD 189733 b and its parent star. Photo: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI

Typically, the mass of a planet is calculated by studying radial velocity or a measure of how intensely a planets pulls on its star. This method is useful for establishing how many planets orbit a certain star and how large these are, however it’s only accurate in certain conditions, namely for massive planets orbiting around bright star.

The method developed by de Wit and colleagues at MIT, alled MassSpec, employs transmission spectroscopy instead. This works by measuring light from a star passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere. A key property called pressure-scale height – how quickly the atmospheric pressure changes with altitude – is established. Then, using this data the MIT researchers can determine the planet’s gravity and, in term, mass.

A hellish world

To test the accuracy of the method, the MIT researchers looked at a gas giant HD 189733 b – a huge, Jupiter-like planet in terms of composition which orbits its parent star in only 2.2-days – previously analyzed using conventional methods. Since its a massive planet around a very bright star, measuring the exoplanet’s properties is relatively easy and accurate. After comparing the data coming from the MIT method with those from conventional methods, the results were found to be consisting.

Following the 2018 deployment of the James Webb Telescope, a multi-billion project, much powerful than Kepler, that will peer through dim and small stars, like those classed as M dwarf stars, the MIT method is sure to become truly useful. Considering there are billions of planets in the Milky Way, a new age of astronomic breakthroughs and discoveries may come out.

1 in 5 stars may have Earth-sized planets

A statistical analysis of observations based on the Kepler telescope indicates that 20 percent of all stars in the Milky Way host earth-sized planets, a significant part of which could potentially be habitable.

Habitable planets in the Milky Way

NASA’s Kepler telescope is crippled – it’s reached the end of its four year mission, but it provided an immense amount of useful data for astronomers who want to find out just how many Earth-like planets are in our galaxy. Given that 1 in 5 planets have are rather similar in size to our own, it seems safe to assume that at least a big part of them are also in the habitable area.

“When you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis of the Kepler data.

Exoplanet discovery is a field that has advanced exponentially. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1989, and until 1992, two others were announced. However, it took 3 more years before another was reported, and in early 2005, less than 15 exoplanets had been discovered. As of 1 November 2013, a total of 1038 confirmed exoplanets are listed in the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, including a few that were confirmations of controversial claims from the late 1980s.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since the discovery of the first extrasolar planet around a normal star. Since then, we have learned that most stars have planets of some size orbiting them, and that Earth-size planets are relatively common in close-in orbits that are too hot for life,” said Andrew Howard, a former UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow who is now on the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. “With this result, we’ve come home, in a sense, by showing that planets like our Earth are relatively common throughout the Milky Way Galaxy.”

Earth-sized does not mean habitable

habitable zone

Currently, astronomers have a pretty volatile definition for what ‘habitable’ means – as I told you in this article. Planetary habitability is the measure of a planet’s or a natural satellite’s potential to develop and sustain life – basically, at the moment, it is a measure of how much a planet features the same conditions as Earth, because right now, those are the only ones that we know for sure can sustain life. In determining the habitability potential of a body, researchers estimate its density, mass, distance from its star, size of the star, orbital properties, atmosphere, and potential chemical interactions. The possibility of so many Earth-sized planets existing is absolutely thrilling, even though a big portion of them are not habitable.

“For NASA, this discovery is really important, because future missions will try to take an actual picture of a planet, and the size of the telescope they have to build depends on how close the nearest Earth-size planets are,” Howard said. “An abundance of planets orbiting nearby stars simplifies such follow-up missions.”

Even if a planet is similar in size to Earth, and even if it lies in the habitable zone, where it’s not too hot and not to o cold, that doesn’t mean that it has life.

“Some may have thick atmospheres, making it so hot at the surface that DNA-like molecules would not survive. Others may have rocky surfaces that could harbor liquid water suitable for living organisms,” Marcy said. “We don’t know what range of planet types and their environments are suitable for life.”

However, good news also came from Howard, Marcy and their colleagues reported that one Earth-size planet discovered by Kepler — albeit, a planet with a likely temperature of 2,000 Kelvin, which is far too hot for life as we know it — is the same density as Earth and most likely composed of rock and iron, like Earth.

“This gives us some confidence that when we look out into the habitable zone, the planets Erik is describing may be Earth-size, rocky planets,” Howard said.

Planet that shouldn’t exist baffles scientists

It’s a big, bad, lava world – and according to what we know about astronomy, it simply shouldn’t exist.

Artistic depiction of Kepler 78b

Artistic depiction of Kepler 78b

Kepler-78b circles its star every 8 and 1/2 hours, featuring one of the tightest known orbtits. According to currently accepted theories on planetary formation, it couldn’t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have migrated there.

“This planet is a complete mystery,” says astronomer David Latham of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “We don’t know how it formed or how it got to where it is today. What we do know is that it’s not going to last forever. “Kepler-78b is going to end up in the star very soon, astronomically speaking,” agrees CfA astronomer Dimitar Sasselov.

To make this planet even more interesting, it is the first known Earth-sized planet with an Earth-like density. Kepler-78b has a radius approximately 20 percent larger than Earth, and weighs almost twice as much – which means that the density is pretty much the same as Earth’s. But there is no apparent connection between this and the planet’s formation.

“It couldn’t have formed in place because you can’t form a planet inside a star. It couldn’t have formed further out and migrated inward, because it would have migrated all the way into the star. This planet is an enigma,” explains Sasselov.

According to Latham, Kepler-78b is part of a new class of stars, which researchers use to characterize worlds who orbit their stars in less than 12 hours. Kepler-78b is the first of these planets to have its mass measured.

“Kepler-78b is the poster child for this new class of planets,” notes Latham.

But, for all its fame and resemblance to Earth, the planet is doomed. Gravitational tides will draw it even closer to its star and eventually, it will move so close to the star that the gravity will tear it apart. But astronomers estimate that Kepler-78b still has some 3 billion years before this happens.

Kepler finds first known tilted solar system

Observations from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have for the first time uncovered a ’tilted’ solar system, with two planets orbiting a star at a 45-degree angle.

kepler tilted system

Did you ever wonder why the planets from our Solar System are all in the same plane? They formed from a flat disc of gas and dust revolving around the Sun’s equator – Earth’s orbit makes an angle of just 7.2 degrees with the plane of the Sun’s equator, and this is similar for all the 9 8 planets (sorry Pluto). This is the case with pretty much every solar system astronomers have discovered so far.

However, five years ago, they began observing planets orbiting at steep angles to their stars’ equators; some planets even spin in the opposite direction to their star. But not a single one had a misaligned multiplanetary solar system – until now.

Daniel Huber of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and his colleagues looked at Kepler-56, a star roughly 860 parsecs (2,800 light years) from Earth; it has two planets which orbit their sun closer than Mercury does to ours. Observations on this system revealed that the plane of the star’s equator tilts 45 degrees to the planets’ orbits.

“It was a big surprise,” Huber says.

This discovery was only possible because their star is relatively big (4 times bigger than the Sun), and the planets are orbiting so close. To find out what caused the tilting, the astronomers measured the velocity of Kepler-56 through space using the 10-metre Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The W. M. Keck Observatory is a two-telescope astronomical observatory at an elevation of 4,145 meters (13,600 ft) near the summit of Mauna Kea.

“That revealed the culprit,” Huber says: a distant body whose gravitational pull tugs the star and also tilts the planets’ orbits.

“It’s a fascinating discovery,” says Amaury Triaud, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It’s nature: you observe, and you find extraordinary stuff.”

First cloud map of an extrasolar planet

Astronomers have created the first cloud map of a planet outside our solar system, a sizzling, Jupiter-like world known as Kepler-7b.

Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped.

Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped.

NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes found patchy clouds on this hot Jupiter which was discovered in January 2010. Hot Jupiters are some of the most common planets from what we know so far; they are gas giants just like Jupiter, but they have high surface temperatures because they orbit very close to the Sun (tipically 2 – 7 times closer than the Earth), which makes them very bright and relatively easy to study.

Kepler-7b is marked by high clouds in the west and clear skies in the east.

“By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution ‘map’ of this giant, gaseous planet,” said Brice-Olivier Demory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Demory is lead author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We wouldn’t expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds.”

Like Kepler, Spitzer can fix its gaze at a star system as a planet orbits around the star, gathering clues about the planet’s atmosphere; it is able to detect infrared light, and thus it was able to measure Kepler-7b’s temperature, estimating it to be between 815 and 980 degrees Celsius (1,500 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Interestingly, this is a very low temperature for a planet which orbits its Sun-like star 16 times closer than the Earth.

“Kepler-7b reflects much more light than most giant planets we’ve found, which we attribute to clouds in the upper atmosphere,” said Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “Unlike those on Earth, the cloud patterns on this planet do not seem to change much over time — it has a remarkably stable climate.”

The method shows promise in studying earth-like planets and their atmosphere.

“With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “We’re at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them.”

nasa eyes

Explore all 900-plus exoplanet discoveries with NASA’s “Eyes on Exoplanets,” a fully rendered 3D visualization tool, available for download at http://eyes.nasa.gov/exoplanets. The program is updated daily, and it’s a simply brilliant tool for those passionate about space exploration and astronomy.

Stars don’t consume their planets – usually

Stars have a pull on all planets, but they exhibit a special kind of attraction towards a class of planets called ‘Hot Jupiters‘.

hot jupiter

Hot Jupiters, also called roaster planets or pegadisds are a class of extrasolar planets very similar to Jupiter, but which have very high temperatures because they orbit very close to the Sun. It is thought that all of these planets have migrated from the extremities of the solar system to their current position because there would not have been enough material so close to the star for a planet of that mass to have formed so close to its star.

So they’re formed far away from their star, and then they start getting closer; and closer… and closer! Logic tells you, as they move closer to the star, the gravitational attraction increases, and they will probably end up in eaten by the star. But a new study using data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope shows that hot Jupiters are in fact not often consumed by their stars – instead, remaining stable for several billions of years.

“Eventually, all hot Jupiters get closer and closer to their stars, but in this study we are showing that this process stops before the stars get too close,” said Peter Plavchan of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. “The planets mostly stabilize once their orbits become circular, whipping around their stars every few days.”

The study, which was published in the Astrophysical Journal, is the first to show that hot Jupiter planets halt their inward march on stars, stabilizing an orbit as the migration ceases.

“When only a few hot Jupiters were known, several models could explain the observations,” said Jack Lissauer, a Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif., not affiliated with the study. “But finding trends in populations of these planets shows that tides, in combination with gravitational forces by often unseen planetary and stellar companions, can bring these giant planets close to their host stars.”

The full paper can be read here.



Most promising Earth-like planets found by Kepler

An artist's impression of a sunrise on Kepler 62f. (c) American Association for the Advancement of Science

An artist’s impression of a sunrise on Kepler 62f. (c) American Association for the Advancement of Science

The ever resourceful Kepler mission has recently unveiled several new possible Earth-like planet candidates, two of whom are favored by scientists with the best odds yet of supporting alien life.

The pair actually orbits around the same star, called Kepler 62, after NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is smaller and dimmer than our own star. Kepler 62 is some 1,200 light years away, in the constellation Lyra,  and hosts a total of five recognized planets, but only two of them – Kepler-62f, a rocky world just 1.4 times bigger than Earth and  Kepler-62e, which is 1.6 times larger than Earth – are well within the Goldilocks band of habitable planets. This band signifies that any rocky planet in this orbit is within the temperature threshold allowing for liquid water to form and flow on the surface – a must have prerequisite for supporting life.

As such, the two planets circle their star at distances of 37 million and 65 million miles, about as far apart as Mercury and Venus in our solar system. What’s important to note is that both worlds are rocky and in a way resemble our own solar system pair of hospitable planets – Earth and Mars, the latter once being host to liquid water on its surface billions of years ago.

“This is the first planet that ticks both boxes,” Dr. Charbonneau said, speaking of the outermost planet, Kepler 62f. “


While nobody knows what the two exoplanets look like, a separate modeling study published in the Astrophysical Journal suggests they’re both probably water worlds covered by endless, uninterrupted global oceans. This statement is far from being flawless and should be taken as nothing more than an educated guess, at best.

“There may be life there, but could it be technology-based like ours? Life on these worlds would be under water with no easy access to metals, to electricity, or fire for metallurgy,” lead author Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

“Nonetheless, these worlds will still be beautiful blue planets circling an orange star — and maybe life’s inventiveness to get to a technology stage will surprise us,” she added.

In another system, Kepler-69, scientists have also found a super-Earth in the habitable zone, announced at the same NASA conference that presented the most viable Earth-like pair to date. The planet, Kepler-69c, is 1.7 times larger than Earth and is regarded as an important find since it orbits a parent star very similar to our own, 2,700 light-years away. So far, it’s the smallest Earth-like planet found to orbit a star of similar mass and brightness to the sun, as other similar findings were made of planets several times the mass of Earth. Researchers believe that a planet with mass closer to that of Earth is more likely to host life.

The team of 60 authors, led by Mr. Borucki, reported the discovery in an article published online in the journal Science.

Embedded below is the full video press conference where the new exoplanets were announced and described. It’s an hour long, but it’s really worth it if you have the time.

An artist's impression of an Earth-like planet with two moons orbiting around a red dwarf star. (c) David A. Aguilar (CfA).

Earth-like planets closer than previously thought. Nearest one might lie 13 light-years away

After researchers surveyed data from the Kepler mission tasked with identifying possibly habitable planets outside our solar system they found that 6% of red dwarfs – the most common type of planets – are within this zone. This new adjustment would mean that the nearest Earth-like planet might lie just 13 light years away.

An artist's impression of an Earth-like planet with two moons orbiting around a red dwarf star. (c) David A. Aguilar (CfA).

An artist’s impression of an Earth-like planet with two moons orbiting around a red dwarf star. (c) David A. Aguilar (CfA).

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) first took a look at the entire Kepler catalog of 158,000 target stars to identify all the red dwarfs. Then a more refined method was used to assess the stars’ temperature and size, an analysis that showed that these were generally smaller and cooler than previously thought.

An exoplanet is discovered and has its properties determined based on its transient orbit in plane with its parent star. This implies that the exoplanet’s size and properties are the same time determined based on its host star, since they’re based relative to the star’s properties. Thus, cooler dwarf stars means cooler planets and a tighter habitable zone.

“We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,” said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing (CfA).

A new Earth might be closer to us than thought

Red dwarfs make up three out of every four stars in our galaxy for a total of at least 75 billion. The astronomers involved in the present study identified 95 planetary candidates orbiting such red dwarf stars. Upon closer inspection most of them didn’t fit the right size and temperature requirements needed for them to be considered Earth-like, though. Three candidate planets, however, were considered both warm and Earth-sized. This would statistically imply that some 6% of all red dwarfs should have an Earth-like planet orbiting.

“We now know the rate of occurrence of habitable planets around the most common stars in our galaxy,” said co-author David Charbonneau (CfA). “That rate implies that it will be significantly easier to search for life beyond the solar system than we previously thought.”

It so has it that our solar system is located in a cloud of red dwarfs, which is why more than 75% of all neighboring stars are red dwarfs. With this new analysis in play, this all adds up implying that the nearest Earth-like planet might lie just 13 light years away.

Actually locating an Earth-like planet, with all its perks, would require an analysis of its atmosphere, something not possible with today’s technology. Once with the deployment of massive space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope or ground based telescope arrays like the Giant Magellan Telescope probing a distant world’s chemistry will be possible – expect some of humanity’s greatest discoveries to be made once this happens.

The three habitable-zone planetary candidates identified in this study are Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) 1422.02, which is 90 percent the size of Earth in a 20-day orbit; KOI 2626.01, 1.4 times the size of Earth in a 38-day orbit; and KOI 854.01, 1.7 times the size of Earth in a 56-day orbit. All three are located about 300 to 600 light-years away and orbit stars with temperatures between 5,700 and 5,900 degrees Fahrenheit. (For comparison, our Sun’s surface is 10,000 degrees F.)

Dressing presented her findings today in a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

source: press release

Kepler telescope – Earth size planets number ’17 billion’

Astronomers working on the Kepler telescope believe that every 1 in 6 stars hosts at least an Earth-sized planet in a close orbit, raising the number of such planets in our galaxy to 17 billion.

Finding planets

kepler planets

Astrophysicists also announced 461 new planet candidates discovered by the telescope; this raises the number of planets discovered by Kepler to 2,740 – quite a remarkable number, especially considering how it was launched just 3 years ago. The findings were announced at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in California.

Since 2009, Kepler has looked at over 150.000 stars, trying to figure out if there are planets orbiting them. In order to do this, it analyzes what is called a transit – a dip in the star’s luminosity as planets pass in front of it – sort of like a mini-eclipse. However, these luminosity dips are extremely small and hard to measure and put in context, especially considering that not every dip is caused by a planet.

But Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (who discovered several Earth-sized planets) is not only trying to find and characterize planets using this method, but he also wants to find planets that haven’t been visible to Kepler.

“We have to correct for two things – first [the Kepler candidate list] is incomplete,” he told BBC News. “We only see the planets that are transiting their host stars, stars that happen to have a planet that is well-aligned for us to see it, and [for each of those] there are dozens that do not. The second major correction is in the list of candidates – there are some that are not true planets transiting their host star, they are other astrophysical configurations.”

The most notable example here are binary stars – stars that orbit each other, often blocking light and dipping luminosity as one passes in front of the other.

Strength in numbers

“We simulated all the possible configurations we could think of – and we found out that they could only account for 9.5% of Kepler planets, and all the rest are bona fide [good faith] planets,” Dr Fressin explained.

kepler telescopeTheir results suggest that 17% of stars host a planet up to 1.25 times the size of the Earth, in close orbits lasting just 85 days or fewer – pretty much like the planet Mercury. If their results are correct, then our galaxy must have at least 17 billion such planets – much more than previously expected!

But even has he was reporting these numbers, Christopher Burke of the Seti Institute found 461 new candidate planets, a substantial fraction of which were about as big as Earth, or just a little larger.

“What’s particularly interesting is four new planets – less than twice the size of Earth – that are potentially in the habitable zone, the location around a star where it could potentially have liquid water to sustain life,” Dr Burke explained.

The good thing is that not only are they finding more and more planets, but they’re also getting better at it.

“It’s very exciting because we’re really starting to pick up the sensitivity to these things in the habitable zone – we’re just really getting to the frontier of potentially life-bearing planets.”

William Borucki, the main man and driving force behind the Kepler missions was also delighted.

“The most important thing is the statistics – not to find one Earth but to find 100 Earths, that’s what we’ll be seeing as the years go on with the Kepler mission – because it was designed to find many Earths.”


Artist impression of HD40307g in the foreground, with its host star HD40307 and two other planets in the system. (c) NASA

New super-Earth exoplanet is a mere 46 light-years away

Astronomers have used a novel planet hunter instrument to detect a new possible life supporting, Earth-like exoplanet. In fact the new planet is classed as a super-Earth, since it has a minimum mass of 7.1 times that of our planet, and is properly located on its parent star’s orbit to support the presence of liquid water – the main prerequisite for life.

The newly found exoplanet giant is the farthest of six planets revolving around  HD 40307, a dwarf-star  three-quarters as massive as the sun and located about 42 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. Initially only three planets were identified around the dwarf-star, but recent observations by astronomers using  the Harps instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla facility in Chile have rendered three more planets to the system.

Artist impression of HD40307g in the foreground, with its host star HD40307 and two other planets in the system. (c) NASA

Artist impression of HD40307g in the foreground, with its host star HD40307 and two other planets in the system. (c) JTP

However, only the farthest away, the super-Earth sized one, is of particular interest to scientists, since it’s believed to fly around its parent star over 320 days, a distance that places it within HD 40307’s so-called “habitable zone.” Its other five brothers are simply too close to the star to support life.

Planet hunters like the Kepler telescope typically make use of the transient effect that planets induce whenever they pass between a star and Earth’s vantage point. As the planet passes-by between the observer and the star, a change in brightness occurs and according to the intensity of the flare, scientists can not only tell whether a planet or more are revolving around the star, but also their properties like mass and density.

The planetary system around HD 40307 has an architecture radically different from that of the solar system, however. Harps does not spot planets directly, like Kepler does by studying planet transience. Instead, it detects the slight changes in colour of a stars’ light caused by planets’ gentle gravitational tugs – the “redshift” and “blueshift” that small motions cause.

“All we know at this point is that it has a minimum mass of about 7.1 Earth-masses. We have no explicit follow-up planned, thought the HARPS team is probably still gathering more data, and may in the future be able to confirm these results, and perhaps add even more planets to the brood,” astronomer Steven Vogt, with the University of California’s Lick Observatory, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“We feel pretty confortable that these six panets are all there,” Vogt said.

The team say that the next step is to use space-based telescopes to get a more direct look at the planet and assess its composition. Who knows, maybe astronomers just struck gold! Then again, this new planet joins a selected list of 800 other possible Earth-like candidates found so far. We can only rejoice at an even grander list. Chances are, little by little, we’ll find IT.

No, this isn't a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS - a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

New ESA planet-hunter space telescope slated for 2017

The European Space Agency has officially announced that it will launch a new space telescope tasked with the primary objective of finding Earth-like planets in our neighboring cosmic backyard. Though the mission’s budget is rather small, there’s nothing modest about its goals.

No, this isn't a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS -  a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

No, this isn’t a garden hose plug, but an artist impression of CHEOPS – a newly approved space telescope mission from the European Space Agency, charged with the delicate mission of finding Earth-like planets neighbouring our own blue marble. Photograph: University of Bern

Dubbed CHEOPS or CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite, at the end of its 3.5 year-long scheduled mission the space telescope should offer a list of Earth-like planets or exoplanets of close proximity. To do this, CHEOPS will function much in the same way as Kepler, the most famous planet-hunter space telescope, by studying a star’s brightness and looking for blips that hint of an object orbiting. By measuring the wobbling effect of a star’s brightness, scientists can tell its radius and mass. With this at hand, they can further establish a planet’s density, which helps describe its composition.

Kepler has retrieved some exciting finds during its mission, as it currently confirmed 77 planets and discovered thousands of candidates. The main problem with Kepler, though, is that its aimed at points in the skyline extremely far away from Earth. Thus, the planets found thus far by the space telescope can’t be followed-up with subsequent research using ground telescopes simply because they’re so far away. CHEOPS seeks to address this issue by peering through closer stars, as it surveys dense starfields in the Milky Way.

The 50 million euro CHEOPS will be able to detect planets down to the mass of the Earth and will have the sensitivity to show which planets have dense atmospheres; valuable information that might hint the fabled discovery of a potentially life harboring alien planet. And it’s not only CHEOPS scientific goals that are exciting, but the prospects it holds for future space exploration as well – the space telescope will be the first of a series of small missions, each one rapidly developed at low cost to investigate new scientific ideas quickly.

 “I think it is realistic to expect to be able to infer within a few decades whether a planet like Earth has oxygen/ozone in its atmosphere, and if it is covered with vegetation,” Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

press release

Artist impression of the Kepler-30 solar system, complete with its planets' orbits. (c) Cristina Sanchis Ojeda

Newly discovered solar system is very similar to our own

Artist impression of the Kepler-30 solar system, complete with its planets' orbits. (c)  Cristina Sanchis Ojeda

Artist impression of the Kepler-30 solar system, complete with its planets’ orbits. (c) Cristina Sanchis Ojeda

Researchers at MIT, the University of California at Santa Cruz and other institutions have come across the first exoplanetary system, whose planets exhibit a regularly aligned orbit, after analyzing data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. So far, other discovered exoplanetary systems had planets, particularly hot-Jupiters, which presented  far more eccentric orbits.

Our solar system is comprised of eight planets, each orbiting their own regular lane and always on the same plane, in contrast to the rest of the other planetary systems discovered thus far. Finally, data from Kepler, an instrument that monitors 150,000 stars for signs of distant planets, has revealed a solar system very much similar to our own, 10,000 light years away and at the center of which lies Kepler-30, a star as bright and massive as the sun. The star has a vertical axis and has three planets which orbit in the same plane.

“In our solar system, the trajectory of the planets is parallel to the rotation of the sun, which shows they probably formed from a spinning disc,” says MIT graduate student Roberto Sanchis-Ojeda. “In this system, we show that the same thing happens.”

Some scientists worried that our solar system’s orbital structure might be extremely rare, if not unique – a fluke of nature. This recent find proves that something one of a kind in the Universe comes at a distant possibility, a cosmic one.

“It’s telling me that the solar system isn’t some fluke,” says Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a co-author on the paper. “The fact that the sun’s rotation is lined up with the planets’ orbits, that’s probably not some freak coincidence.”

The finding seems to support a recent theory which discuss how hot-Jupiters form – giant bodies named after their extremely close proximity to their white-hot stars, completing an orbit in mere hours or days. Kepler-30 provides evidence that only hot Jupiter systems are misaligned, formed as a result of planetary scattering.

“We’ve been hungry for one like this, where it’s not exactly like the solar system, but at least it’s more normal, where the planets and the star are aligned with each other,” Winn says. “It’s the first case where we can say that, besides the solar system.”

Planetary orbits correlated with life?

There could be implications for the study of how life evolved in the universe, as in order to have a stable climate suitable for life, a planet needs to be in a stable orbit.

 “In order to understand how common life is in the universe, ultimately we will need to understand how common stable planetary systems are,” Lloyd says. “We may find clues in extrasolar planetary systems to help understand the puzzles of the solar system, and vice versa.”

Findings were published today in the journal Nature. 

source: MIT newsroom

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Two newly discovered alien planets form closest known pair in the Universe

Kepler, a space telescope on a mission to find alien planets by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, has come across a fantastic discovery. Two planets orbiting a distant star, which are closer to one another than any other two planets discovered thus far. Apparently, from the surface of the smaller planet, its neighbor would appear about the size of a 2.5 full-moon, while from the surface of the bigger planet, its dance partner would be the size of a full-moon. Indeed, this is a REAL SciFi scenario.

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. CLICK for a magnified view. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The newly found planets are located in a system 1,200 light-years from Earth. Kepler-36b is a rocky world measuring 1.5 times the radius and 4.5 times the mass of Earth, while Kepler-36c is a gaseous, Neptune-size world about eight times as massive as Earth. Kepler-36b orbits its star every 13.8 days, and Kepler-36c every 16.2 days, and at their closest, the two planets come just within about 1.2 million miles of each other. That’s only five times the Earth-moon distance and about 20 times closer to one another than any two planets in our solar system.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” said Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a press statement.

“They are the closest to each other of any planetary system we’ve found,” said the report’s co-author Eric Agol of the University of Washington in a press statement. “The bigger planet is pushing the smaller planet around more, so the smaller planet was harder to find.”

Twin planets trapped in an odd dance

Were these planets to house an atmosphere similar to that of the Earth, a view from any of the two’s surface would surely seem divine; especially from the Kepler-36b, where Kepler-36c would appear in the night sky 2.5 times bigger than our full moon. Sadly, the planets are so close to their sun, that nothing could survive, and their atmosphere, especially that of the gaseous Kepler-36c, would most likely obstruct any attempts at peering outside the worlds.

“Planet c would appear roughly 2.5 times the size of the full moon when viewed from the surface of planet b. Conversely, planet b would appear about the size of the full moon on planet c,” Carter said.

“We can speculate on the appearance of planet c: It may appear slightly more purple that Neptune,” he added. “The purple hue owes to absorption of red and yellow by sodium and potassium. There could also be a slight brown tint owing to hazes of photo-disassociated methane.”

The team of researchers from the University of Washington and Harvard University, published their findings in the journal Science.

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares 10,000 times more powerful than those in our solar system, observed on sun-like stars

Some stars, most often during their early life, exhibit an intense and energetic behavior, much greater than that of our own sun, despite a similar size, per say. In the first survey of its kind, scientists at Kyoto University have analyzed sun flares erupting on the surface of distant stars through out our galaxy. They found that some solar flares were even 10,000 times more powerful than those shot by the sun.

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Just a few days ago, I wrote a bit on how solar flares and coronal mass ejections occur, and the impacts they might have on the Earth. The biggest concern involves electrical flooding of the grid after highly charged CMEs hit the Earth, which might cause severe damage to power lines, communication and GPS satellites and just about anything electronic; even if its unplugged (!). The largest recorded solar flare event occurred on  1 September 1859, and chance had it that British astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun right at the eruption moment, noting a great brightness as he was drawing sunspots for his sketches. Just hours later, when the eruption finally hit Earth, telegraph lines went down and flashed sparks even though batteries were disconnected. However, this paled in oddity compared to the massive aurora borealis which extended as far as the tropic at the event! It must had been a massive sun flare indeed, but considering the first electrically light city was still at least 20 years away, beyond the big scare and slew of superstitions unleashed, the event didn’t affect the life of human society at the time.

Were the Carrington event to happen today, things would’ve been a lot different. Imagine a world thrown in complete and utter pitch black darkness. Chaos. Now, imagine an event 10,000 times more powerful.

Some, maybe even more powerful, were observed by the Japanese scientists which analyzed four months worth of data delivered by the Kepler Telescope, directed towards a certain patch in the sky. The telescope’s main role is that of studying the slight shifts in brightness of stars, which might correspond to the moment an orbiting planet is passing in front of the sun, facing the observer. When you’ve got your “eye” right on the stars, it’s a pity actually not to dwell further deep and see what goes around beyond potentially orbiting exoplanets.

The Kyoto based researchers found that out of 83,000 stars of the same type as the Sun, 148 (about 0.2%) had superflares with energies between 10 and 10,000 times greater than the Carrington event. Most of the massive sun flares occurred on star which have a short period of ration, generally just 10 days, compared to a month required by the sun to  make a complete revolution around its axis. Because these stars spin faster, they have more magnetic energy to burn, translating in more powerful eruptions.

Back to the Earth and massive solar flare hypothesis; a solar flare 10,000 times more powerful than those we’re currently experiencing nowadays would mean total annihilation of all life on Earth, instantly. The O-zone layer would simply shred to pieces, leaving way for massive amounts of radiation. But would the sun ever be capable of generating such an eruption. Scientists believe such an event is highly unlikely. All the massive solar flares were joined by giant sun spots, as well, a connection known for some time by scientists; these solar spots are a lot bigger than those usually surfaced on the sun. It still can fry all of our global electronics, though.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.



Turns out, another solar system has more planets than ours

Our solar system is special for two reasons: the first one, obviously – is us. Our solar system is the only one we know of so far that hosts life. The second one is the number of planets – no other solar system that we’ve seen until now had as many planets as ours, but this has just changed.

The decade of exoplanets

We keep making absolutely stunning exoplanet discoveries, mostly due to the Kepler telescopes, and the decade is just starting! HD 10180, located about 130 light-years away, was already known to have six planets, five roughly Neptune-sized and one the size of Saturn – nothing particularly interesting here, aside for the fact that pound for pound, this already made it a little more crowded than our own solar system.

But a new analysis using the HARPS camera in Chile has turned up a few new planets, enough to give HD 10180 more planets than our own Sun – and the fans of Pluto as a planet are absolutely not going to love this. Guessed it already? HD 10180 has (that’s right) nine planets, breaking the record by only one.

The three additional planets

These new planets have masses of 1.3, 1.9, and 5.1 times that of Earth, and orbit the star with periods (think of that as the planets’ years) of 1.2, 10, and 68 days, respectively. The first two out of three seem pretty well placed in the Earth mass range, and they are what astronomers like to call ‘super Earths‘. However, the first one is only 3 million km (less than 2 million miles) from HD 10180, and the second barely any cooler at about 14 million km (8 million miles) – which makes them closer to their sun than Mercury is to our sun, and the two stars are pretty similar.

Of course, it doesn’t look like they’ll win the ‘most likely to host life’ award, but the solar system snatched our prize! If there’s ever a reason to promote Pluto back to planet status, I say be it now and let us tie for the ‘solar system with most planets’.

For a full review of the findings, check out Bad Astronomy’s post.

SETI to check recently discovered Kepler science

There’s been a lot of buzz around the planets discovered by the Kepler telescope, particularly about Kepler-22b – the planet which, outside Earth, has the biggest chances to host life (that we know of). Now, SETI will tune in and start listening to see if there are any aliens with something to say on those planets.

SETI struggles

Sadly, SETI has been through a lot of problems lately; the University of Berkeley cut all support, and they were actually in danger of being shut down, even though all the funding they needed was a fraction of an Apache Helicopter, for example. However, due to funding received mostly by donations, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is back in business, and they can start looking for aliens once again.

“This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations,” says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. “For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems – including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star. That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters.”

Kepler’s planets

Of course, the top priority will be given to the recently discovered Kepler planets – some of which have every chance of hosting life.

“In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery,” says Tarter. “So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler.”

During the next two years, SETI will systematically tune in to these planets, listening for something out of the ordinary in this naturally quiet region. If something is happening there, they will ‘hear’ it, as they can search tens of millions of 1Hz-wide channels at any one time.

“Kepler’s success has created an amazing opportunity to focus SETI research. While discovery of new exoplanets via Kepler is backed with government monies, the search for evidence that some of these worlds might be home to intelligence falls to SETI alone,” says Tarter. “And our SETI exploration depends entirely on private donations, for which we are deeply grateful to our donors.”

You can follow the SETI activity at any time by tuning in to Seti Stars.

Newest found planet is just the right temperature for life

The race for finding habitable planets outside our solar system is definitely heating up. After we told you about Gliese, a planet which seems habitable enough, researchers have reported finding yet another planet, which is not too hot and not too cold either – Kepler-22b is just the right temperature for life as we know it: 72 degrees, a perfect spring temperature on Earth.

Found by the Kepler space telescope (like many other interesting planets), Kepler-22b is the best candidate so far for life outside the solar system – in fact, it might very well be the best candidate for life in our solar system as well (Earth aside).

“If it has a surface, it ought to have a nice temperature,” said Kepler’s lead scientist, Bill Borucki, during a teleconference Monday.

Furthermore, it is located exactly in the habitable area researchers have talked about for so long – not too close and not too far from its star.

“It’s right in the middle of the habitable zone,” said Natalie Batahla, a Kepler scientist, referring to the narrow, balmy band of space around any star where water can be liquid. “The other exciting thing is that it orbits a star very, very similar to our own sun.”

However, there is still a pretty big ‘if’, regarding the planet’s atmosphere. Its temperature and living conditions pretty much depend on its atmosphere, which acts like a blanket and heats the planet. However, even without atmosphere, it is probably hot enough to bear liquid water on its surface.

It’s 2.4 times bigger than our own Earth, but its composition is still somewhat a mystery. It could very well be a rocky planet, like our own planet and Mars for example, and it could also be gaseous, like Jupiter or Uranus. Even more, it could also be a water planet, covered by deep oceans from one end to another – and this is an extremely interesting and provoking scenario. Just imagine, a world 2.4 times bigger than the Earth, covered with deep oceans, at spring temperature – bearing life is extremely likely.

Determining its composition is done by determining its mass, which is something the Kepler telescope can’t measure that; the good news is – Earth located telescopes can. They can estimate the tug and pull it exerts on other bodies and thus accurately estimate its mass. Telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and all over the world are on it in this very moment.

Besides its temperature, Kepler-22b, which is located 600 light years away from us, shares other intriguing similarities with Earth. Its planet is like the Sun’s twin – the light hitting the planet has the same colour as the light hitting Earth, and its year is also comparable to ours: 290 days instead of 365.

Finding Kepler-22b was an admirable achievement, but it also required a bit of luck – but the luck came in time, right before Christmas.

“It’s a great gift,” said Borucki. “We consider it our sort of Christmas planet.”

Researchers working at the Kepler project claim Kepler-22b is a far better candidate for life than another planet found by the European planet-hunting project in September. The planet in case, called HD85512b circles a star which somewhat resembles the Sun, but is smaller and cooler. It is also on the edge of the habitable zone, which means that any water on its surface is likely to be ice.

Astrophysicists are absolutely thrilled by the Kepler-22b discovery, as it shows once again the $600 million Kepler mission which launched in 2009 is more than worth it. The mission has the purpose of finding other Earth-like planets, and in general, planets bearing life. This week, researchers got together to estimate the success or lack of it they’ve had so far – everybody was pleased.

“We are getting really close, we are really homing in on the true Earth-sized habitable planets.”

So far, Kepler’s numbers are absolutely fascinating: out of 150.000 scanned stars, it found 2,326 “candidate planets”. Most of them are gas giants, like Jupiter. But some, 207 including Kepler-22b are comparable in size to Earth. Follow up observations and studies will determine if these planets indeed have the potential to bear life.

“We won’t know if they’re there unless we look,” Tarter said before referencing the 1997 film “Contact.” Jodie Foster played the role of Tarter in the movie, listening to stars that have “just right” planets circling them before striking the alien jackpot. “Just like Jodie Foster … in ‘Contact,’ we will give higher priority to planets that our colleagues tell us are not too warm, not too cold, but just right.”

Meanwhile, 42 radio telescopes are scanning Kepler-22b and other candidates, in the hope of finding the first extrasolar planet which bears life.