NASA spots 54 potentially life-friendly planets

Feb 02, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This is an Jan. 2011 handout artist rendering provided by NASA. NASA’s Kepler telescope is finding that relatively smaller planets _ still larger than Earth, but tinier than Jupiter _ are proving more common outside our solar system than once thought. This drawing is of one of the smallest planets that Kepler has found, a rocky planet called Kepler-10b, that measures 1.4 times the size of Earth and where the temperature is more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. (AP Photo/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital Inc., Kepler Mission, NASA Ames Research Center)

An orbiting NASA telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life, including more than 50 potential planets that appear to be in the habitable zone.

In just a year of peering out at a small slice of the galaxy, the Kepler telescope has spotted 1,235 possible planets outside our solar system. Amazingly, 54 of them are seemingly in the zone that could be hospitable to life - that is, not too hot or too cold, Kepler chief scientist William Borucki said.

Until now, only two planets outside our solar system were even thought to be in the "Goldilocks zone." And both those discoveries are highly disputed.

Fifty-four possibilities is "an enormous amount, an inconceivable amount," Borucki said. "It's amazing to see this huge number because up to now, we've had zero."

The more than 1,200 newfound bodies are not confirmed as planets yet, but Borucki estimates 80 percent of them will eventually be verified. At least one other astronomer believes Kepler could be 90 percent accurate.

After that, it's another big step in proving that a confirmed planet has some of the basic conditions needed to support life, such as the proper size, composition, temperature and distance from its star. More advanced aspects of habitability such as specific atmospheric conditions and the presence of water and carbon require telescopes that aren't built yet.

Just because a planet is in the habitable zone doesn't mean it has life. Mars is a good example of that. And when scientists look for life, it's not necessarily intelligent life; it could be bacteria or mold or a form people can't even imagine.

Before Wednesday, and the announcement of Kepler's findings, the count of planets outside the solar system stood at 519. That means Kepler could triple the number of known planets.

Kepler also found that there are many more relatively small planets, and more stars with more than one planet circling them - all hopeful signs in the search for life.

"We're seeing a lot of planets and that bodes well. We're seeing a lot of diversity," said Kepler co-investigator Jack Lissauer, an astronomer at the University of California Santa Cruz.

All the stars Kepler looks at are in our Milky Way galaxy, but they are so far away that traveling there is not a realistic option. In some cases it would take many millions of years with current technology.

What gets astronomers excited is that the more planets there are - especially those in the habitable zone - the greater the odds that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Yale University astronomer Debra Fischer, who wasn't part of the Kepler team but serves as an outside expert for NASA, said the new information "gives us a much firmer footing" to hope for worlds that could harbor life. "I feel different today, knowing these new Kepler results, than I did a week ago," Fischer said.

Another outside astronomer, Lisa Kaltenegger of Harvard University, called the findings "exciting good news."

Kaltenegger said to be in the habitable zone, a planet has to be the proper distance from its star so that it could have liquid water on its surface, or ground temperatures roughly averaging between 32 degrees and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. That distance varies by star; weaker stars, for example, would require planets to be closer to be habitable.

Because of the various factors that could make planets more prone to life, University of California Santa Cruz astronomer Greg Laughlin created a formula that puts a dollar value on these far-off planets with the idea that the first planet that is incredibly similar to Earth would have a value of $1 million.

Until Wednesday, the highest value Laughlin assigned to an exoplanet, which is what astronomers call a planet outside our solar system, was a measly $158. One of Kepler's new discoveries is worth nearly a quarter-million dollars, Laughlin figures.

Kepler was launched in 2009 and orbits the sun between Earth and Mars. It needs time to find planets. It identifies them by watching them repeatedly move past the star they orbit.

Kepler scientists are strict about calling candidate planets confirmed. Of 400 candidate planets announced last year, only nine of Kepler's discoveries had been confirmed before Wednesday.

Of the more than 800 new candidates, both in and out of the habitable zone, only six are confirmed, all way too hot for life. And they are strange - all densely packed and circling a single star. Five of them are closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, and they move in precise circular and stable orbits.

Two are only twice as wide as Earth - which in the world of exoplanets is practically Earth-like - and the others are closer in size to Neptune or Uranus, which are three to four times the size of Earth.

Kepler astronomers revealed the strange star system in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. NASA announced other elements of Kepler's findings.

In addition to the pure numbers of planet candidates and their locations, their relative size also encourages astronomers. Kepler has found there are more planets considerably smaller than Jupiter - the biggest planet in our solar system - than there are giant planets.

Size matters when it comes to planets and their potential for life. Very large planets are unlikely to be solid; they are more prone to be gas behemoths like Jupiter. Astronomers think a planet needs to be solid - rocky like Earth or Mars - for life to develop.

Explore further: Magnetar discovered close to supernova remnant Kesteven 79

More information:
NASA's Kepler mission: http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/kepler/main/index.html

Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

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User comments : 30

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jdmdaily
5 / 5 (8) Feb 02, 2011
Looking forward to further findings
Moebius
1.4 / 5 (22) Feb 02, 2011
They are more common than fools once thought. Sometimes scientists can be so dumb.
gunslingor1
4.8 / 5 (20) Feb 02, 2011
Moebius, that isn't nice nor accurate. Do you really think you know the exact ratio of small to large planets? I didn't think so, but I wouldn't call your speculation dumb, I'd call it speculation.
Moebius
1.3 / 5 (16) Feb 02, 2011
There were plenty of scientists who speculated that planetary systems might be rare before we found a method to detect them. Now they are rare. It is totally accurate. Only a fool would think our solar system unique.
nevermark
5 / 5 (14) Feb 02, 2011
Moebius, you list yourself as a mechanical/electrical engineer but communicate by name calling and vaguely self-contradictory comments. How about only commenting when you have something worth saying and that would better communicate your own worth too.

Everyone else, it is fantastic to see the number of measured and later validated planets sky rocketing. I will be as interested to find out how many Earth like planets there may be, as how many different kinds of planets we will find. We have already found so many unlike any in our solar system.
MrsButterworth
1.3 / 5 (14) Feb 02, 2011
Wouldn't it be great if we could colonize other planets! One for "liberals" one for "conservatives" and see which one does better.

There'd be no way to get handouts from each other like the red states get here in the US.
nuge
4.8 / 5 (16) Feb 02, 2011
Wouldn't it be great if we could colonize other planets! One for "liberals" one for "conservatives" and see which one does better.

There'd be no way to get handouts from each other like the red states get here in the US.


Shut up, I don't want to see yet another thread polluted with filthy US politics rubbish, especially one that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. I reported your abuse of physorg. Why come here to do this? There are countless articles and message boards out there that are about politics, go and spew forth your worthless opinions there.
/rant

That unpleasantness aside, this is fantastic news. I had just commented on the article about the 6 hot planets that I was worried about its implications for the 'habitability' term in the Drake Equation, but this find of 54 Golidlocks Zone planets absolutely trumps that, by a factor of 9. Excellent stuff.
MrsButterworth
1.9 / 5 (11) Feb 02, 2011
Wouldn't it be great if we could colonize other planets! One for "liberals" one for "conservatives" and see which one does better.

There'd be no way to get handouts from each other like the red states get here in the US.


Shut up, I don't want to see yet another thread polluted with filthy US politics rubbish, especially one that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. I reported your abuse of physorg. Why come here to do this? There are countless articles and message boards out there that are about politics, go and spew forth your worthless opinions there.
/rant

That unpleasantness aside, this is fantastic news. I had just commented on the article about the 6 hot planets that I was worried about its implications for the 'habitability' term in the Drake Equation, but this find of 54 Golidlocks Zone planets absolutely trumps that, by a factor of 9. Excellent stuff.


Yes, your right. I apologize. But it would be a neat experiment when you think about it.
Bog_Mire
3.7 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2011
Yeah, neato! Lets take USA's fun political games interstellar. Definitely. Not.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 02, 2011
Unfortunately, even if we had relativistic ships capable of like 0.9999c, it would still take generations to thousands of years to get a probe out and do a survey of a planet, get the return signals back, and analize the data.

Then if the planet actually was habitable to humans, it would again take generations to thousands, even ten thousands of years to reach any of these planets...at relativistic speeds.
nuge
5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2011
That's why in star trek they say "To boldly go..". If we're going to do space travel, we'd have to be pretty bold about it, and just do without probes and surveys.

Especially since in all the Mars probe missions, all tests for life are still inconclusive. It would be disappointing to waste not just a few years but thousands of years on an inconclusive result.
omatumr
1.5 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2011
Since the Sun is an ordinary star, I suspect that the debris orbiting it is not unusual either.
Marijan_Mak
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2011
jeeeeeeeeee! We will soon be seen with neighbors. I hope it will be more pleasant than those with whom we share the planet!
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2011
That's why in star trek they say "To boldly go..". If we're going to do space travel, we'd have to be pretty bold about it, and just do without probes and surveys.


You realize how big a "real world" space ship would need to be to serve in a similar role to the Enterprise, when you take away the fiction/fantasy warp drives?

We've done rough calculations in the past on the main forums countless times, and the conclusion is usually reached that it ends up being easier and more cost effective to make a bigger colony ship and travel slower, 0.1c to 0.01c, rather than faster.

An antimatter rocket isn't enough. To go 0.8c with an ideal rocket, you need twice as much antimatter as the mass of the ship for the braking stage, and 6 times as much for the acceleration stage, because the acceleration stage must push the payload plus the braking stage.

To make a round trip or course change, like the Enterprise you need geometrically more fuel and propellant.
bad_bob
not rated yet Feb 03, 2011
Does SETI update the way they scan for signals, based on these types of findings?
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2011
Masses, data on their orbits, parent stars, all this would be nice to know.

54 is just a meaningless number without more refined data.
yyz
5 / 5 (5) Feb 03, 2011
"Masses, data on their orbits, parent stars, all this would be nice to know."

"54 is just a meaningless number without more refined data."

Here's a link to the (106 page!) paper describing the 1235 planetary candidates found by Kepler:

h
ttp://kepler.nasa.gov/files/mws/FebDataRelease_revised_020211.pdf

Bear in mind that based on the current data, these are *candidate* planets that will require followup observations to confirm their existence and particulars.
nuge
not rated yet Feb 03, 2011
You realize how big a "real world" space ship would need to be to serve in a similar role to the Enterprise, when you take away the fiction/fantasy warp drives?

We've done rough calculations in the past on the main forums countless times, and the conclusion is usually reached that it ends up being easier and more cost effective to make a bigger colony ship and travel slower, 0.1c to 0.01c, rather than faster.

An antimatter rocket isn't enough. To go 0.8c with an ideal rocket, you need twice as much antimatter as the mass of the ship for the braking stage, and 6 times as much for the acceleration stage, because the acceleration stage must push the payload plus the braking stage.

To make a round trip or course change, like the Enterprise you need geometrically more fuel and propellant.


Yeah, I know. What's your point?
rbrtwjohnson
not rated yet Feb 04, 2011
There are fifty four potentially life-friendly planets out there. We need to start now building a fusion-powered electrodynamic starship to take us there in our lifetime. tinyurl.com/nuclear-fusion-starship
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2011
"Masses, data on their orbits, parent stars, all this would be nice to know."

"54 is just a meaningless number without more refined data."

Here's a link to the (106 page!) paper describing the 1235 planetary candidates found by Kepler:

h
ttp://kepler.nasa.gov/files/mws/FebDataRelease_revised_020211.pdf

Bear in mind that based on the current data, these are *candidate* planets that will require followup observations to confirm their existence and particulars.


Thank you sir!
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 04, 2011
The paragraph in the PDF is a bit confusing, and doesn't even use the same size parameters for planet classifications as has been used in the past.

In the past, "super earths" were classified as 4 to 10 earth masses. Here they are classified as 1.25 to 2 earth radii, which if had the same average density as earth would be 2 to 8 earth masses. Apparantly, someone got the memo on how humans can't live on planets of 4 earth masses with average density equal to earth...

From what I've seen in the charts, all of the earth sized planets, and all save one of the super-earth sized planets would be orbiting closer to their stars than does Venus. Almost all of them orbit closer than mercury. Unless these stars are less than half as luminous as the Sun, there is no way liquid water exists on this planets. Somebody is on crack. See PDF page 14.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 04, 2011
The chart on page 21 is full of it.

How can a planet have a SEMI MAJOR AXIS of 0.5au or less, and have an equilibrium temperature that is below the freezing point of water? The host star would have to be less than 1/4 of a the solar luminosity.

At that distance, from a Sun clone, a planet would experience a solar flux of around 5448watts/m^2.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 04, 2011
In fact, the entire chart is ridiculous, as in the above charts we find that all of the candidate planets have semi-major axis of 0.5au or less.

The mean temperature of an earth-clone planet orbiting a sun-like star at a semi-major axis of 0.5au would be greater than that of Venus.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 04, 2011
My God...

A human being could study this data for a lifetime and never really even scratch the surface, although it's pretty obvious from the semi-major axis issue that none of these planets ever have liquid water on them, except possibly one.

There is also a conflict in the data in one case, where a planet's orbit is reported larger in one place than in another.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2011
Even if their stars are M type and temps would allow for liquid water they'd be tidally locked, which is a huge problem if you wanna have critters running around on them.
apex01
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 06, 2011
Wouldn't it be great if we could colonize other planets! One for "liberals" one for "conservatives" and see which one does better.

There'd be no way to get handouts from each other like the red states get here in the US.


LOL, i love it. In a way we already have that kind of comparison thou. California vs. Texas.
Ramael
1 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2011
Wouldn't it be great if we could colonize other planets! One for "liberals" one for "conservatives" and see which one does better.

There'd be no way to get handouts from each other like the red states get here in the US.


I don't think it would survive, not unless you immigrated a whole bunch of dumbed 'lower class' laborers to divert spending power from, like both systems are currently dependent. Besides, with the advent of internet social networking, the political arena is faced with the challenge of bridging a communication gap between the old and new generations, which already threatens the stability of the already fatally flawed representative voting system.
Ramael
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2011
Neither of these systems are self sustaining in a community where internet readily makes available massive amounts of free information, and now that the the internet has almost had enough time to see an entire generation born with total comfort and trust in the new publicly available technology, about 10 to 20 years, we're going to be seeing some significant changes to the social and political structures of the free web world, one way or another.
Thex1138
5 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2011
Just think... holding your thumb to the stars...anywhere...and everywhere you point your arm there be at least 10,000 galaxies behind your thumb nail in the visible universe... with average 100 billion+ stars in each... give each one of them a planet... just one... Kepler has a lot of surveying to do... 8-)
Paljor
5 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2011
And at least ONE other one of those has intelligant life. most likely 100 to 1,000 in that one area have just life.