The probability that there is life out there increases:
NASA’s new telescope, Kepler, has discovered five giant new planets outside the Solar System.
While none of them are hospitable, scientists are enthusiastic that the new equipment is working so well, adding to the possibility of completing its mission successfully: to find another Planet Earth out there.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on 6 th March last year, Kepler was designed to scour the Universe for evidence of planets with characteristics similar to those of Earth, so that one day Mankind might have a safe haven in 7.5 billion years time when our Sun explodes, that is if he has not destroyed the planet himself long before that.
The latest discovery was announced in Washington at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society and has been confirmed by terrestrial stations linked to Kepler: namely the telescope’s first finding: five giant planets outside our Solar System.
While surface conditions are very inhospitable – all the planets have a short orbit (from 3.2 to 4.9 days) around their Suns and temperatures of between 1,200C to 1,600C – the discovery nevertheless increases statistical probabilities that a planet similar to Earth will be found out there and also proves that Kepler is alive and well and functioning with great precision.
Kepler is programmed to study 100,000 stars simultaneously on a continued basis and was designed to be able to look at the equivalent of a small town at night-time and detect an automatic light sensor turned on by a person passing in front of it.
Bill Borucki, head of the Kepler mission at the Ames research station in California, states “The temperatures we found on these planets are all higher than molten lava…the hottest two are hotter than molten iron and it’s like looking at a furnace”.
Kepler b is the planet that is intriguing scientists at the moment due to the fact that it has the highest density of any planet found outside the Solar System (0.17g/cm2) and has a surface which resembles polystyrene.
It may have a radius about 2.4 times that of our home planet, but NASA scientists have confirmed that Kepler-22b — depicted in the artist’s conception up top — is the first planet we’ve ever confirmed orbits within the so-called “habitable zone” of a Sun-like star, making it the most Earth-like planet we’ve yet discovered.
In astronomy, the habitable zone (also known as the Goldilocks zone”) is the region surrounding a star in which an orbiting planet could maintain liquid water (and, by extension, life) on its surface.
And as the “Goldilocks” moniker implies, whether or not a planet resides inside a habitable zone has everything to do with whether the planet is a little too cold, a little too hot, or just right, temperature-wise.
Take Kepler-21b, for example, whose discovery was announced last week by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Kepler-21b is even closer to the size of Earth than Kepler-22b, but it orbits far too close to its sun to sustain any form of life we’re familiar with; as this conception of K-21b by artist Ron Miller clearly illustrates, surface temperatures on the planet are estimated to reach as much as 3000-degrees Fahrenheit — that’s hot enough to melt iron, not to mention any hope of us ever calling K-21b “Earth 2.0.”
But Kepler-22b is a different story. Sure, the planet orbits about 15% closer to its star than Earth does to the Sun, but its star is also significantly cooler, dimmer, and smaller than ours.
And while scientists have yet to determine K-22b’s composition — be it rocky, gaseous or liquid — they estimate that surface temperatures on K-22b average a very Earth-like 72-degrees Fahrenheit.
“This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“Kepler’s results continue to demonstrate the importance of NASA’s science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe.”