Kepler spots 54 'life-friendly' planets

2011-02-03 08:31

Washington - 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 Earth's solar system. Amazingly, 54 of them seem to be 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 Earth's 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% of them eventually will be verified. At least one other astronomer believes Kepler could be 90% accurate.

Basic conditions

After that, it is another big step to prove 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 are not built yet.

Just because a planet is in the habitable zone does not mean it has life. Mars is a good example of that. And when scientists look for life, it is not necessarily intelligent life; it could be bacteria or mould or a form people cannot 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 travelling 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.

Habitable zone

Yale University astronomer Debra Fischer, who was not 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 harbour 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 0°C and 100°C. 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 $1m.

Until Wednesday, the highest value Laughlin assigned to an exoplanet, which is what astronomers call a planet outside Earth's 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 in 2010, 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 far 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 on 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.

  • surfsurfsurf - 2011-02-03 08:57

    i want a spaceship for Christmas!

      Grazy - 2011-02-03 14:26

      Yikes, can I play co-pilot????? pleeeeeeas.

  • kingswing69 - 2011-02-03 09:04

    they are destroying this planet , just to find another planet to destroy that one.

  • Picasso - 2011-02-03 09:10

    Now sit back and wait for the relgious freaks to comment.

      Richard - 2011-02-03 09:44

      Why.. do religious people not believe in planets and the universe?

      Corry - 2011-02-03 10:07

      @Richard, no they don't. They believe the world is 6000 years ago and that concepts like evlution and "old" earth are lies. Even the remotest possibility of extraterrestrial life contradicts the notion of god as we are "supposedly" created in his image ( more likely though that he is created in our image)

      ok_then - 2011-02-03 11:53

      @Corry your information is outdated.. Its not the Christians who dont buy into scientific discoveries anymore, its agnostic idiots like you who needs to put Christians in the "science is bad" box because your peanut brain cant possible fathom the possibility of believing in science and being religious. Even the Pope himself is trying to explain this to you lot (read News24 article or google it)

      ok_then - 2011-02-03 11:56

      @Corry your information is outdated.. Its not the Christians who dont buy into scientific discoveries anymore, its agnostic idiots like you who needs to put Christians in the "science is bad" box because your peanut brain cant possible fathom the possibility of believing in science and being religious. Even the Pope himself is trying to explain this to you lot (read News24 article or google it) I suppose you need to still cling to this philosophy, because if Christians believe that God created science your brain might just explode

      greydevileyez - 2011-02-03 12:08

      hey, not all religious ppl think like that!!!

      Grazy - 2011-02-03 14:34

      Did any body picked up that it is always the non Christians that make this kind of comments?. I think they are searching for answers deeeeeep inside. They can find it in Genesis as far as the question of stars, moon and sun are concerned. No problem. Or they can talk to the Pope maybe if they can get a interview. Lets get back to the article please, it is rather interesting.

      Corry - 2011-02-04 00:05

      So you use a PERSON who covered up rampant paedophilia and abuse by the catholic clergy and threatened victims with ex-communication if they went public. Nice. But I would rather listen to Hawking, Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli, Darwin, Dawkins etc. There is a big push by teh church to push creationism which believes the earth is ~6000 years old. Despite massive evidence to the contrary. Also, if genesis is to be believed then all non believers should be put to death etc. exodus is even worse

      ok_then - 2011-02-09 14:48

      @ Corry please read this article: as I mentioned in my first comment. You will read that the Catholic Church does not believe in creationism or that the earth is 6000 years old for some time now. The church endorses the big bang and even evolution and that the earth is 13+ billion years old. The church is (as I am) under the opinion that God created science. The Einstein that you mention was a devout Christian himself and he we no mug.. So where does that leave you?

      jmsteenkamp - 2011-09-09 14:23

      So what if that is what we believe? I enjoy being a religious freak and it is my freedom. I am tired of always having to apologise for being a Christian, or taking flack for what I stand for. Sheesh.

  • CDS - 2011-02-03 09:20

    I know Kepler was a great cricketer in his days and is not a bad commentator either, but never thought he'd be into astronomy! Go Kepler! Another Proud to be South African moment!

      nixcroft - 2011-02-03 14:21

      funny... twit :)

  • Polak - 2011-02-03 09:24

    This is good news for the Mormons

  • Joy - 2011-02-03 10:51

    Kepler is not searching for signs of alien life - Kepler is searching for possible planets which we can colonize and destroy, just like we are destroying Earth at the moment.

      nixcroft - 2011-02-03 14:23

      now thats just nuts... nd hopw, pray tell are we supposed to get there ? The fastest traveling human made object, launched in the 70 only recently left our own solar system...the voyager space p[ropbes... that like 40 odd years. and its on earth (or space) do you suppose we build a massive space ark and colonize another planet ?

      Grazy - 2011-02-03 14:39

      Hie hie, maybe the Hadron collider will provide us with a way to solve that speed problemo. Oops, I meen with a answer to how to move faster than light by choice, not with a big bang.

  • jasongoesto - 2011-02-03 11:33

    One will find that the people complaining about 'us' destroying the planet are the ones least likely to get involved in let's up illegal rubbish dumps or buying earth friendly products etc...If you are really worried then get of your arse and set an example..

      Irené - 2011-02-03 11:59

      I agree, its easy to blame humanity as a whole, but what are these people changing about their own lifestyles? as consumers we must become eco friendly consumers or face the wrath of nature. from changing cleaning and skincare products to non toxic biodegradeable ingredients that do not poison our water ways to Saying no to petroleum derived products (which are everywhere). Im tired of everyone just focusing on led lightbulbs and how much water they use while brushing their teeth, sure any change is positive, but we must change our consumer habits, and fast. Fossil fuels are evil- support the natural industry and boycott petroleum products. Theyre everywhere, your clothing, cosmetics, paints, salons, food etc

  • spycage - 2011-02-03 15:53

    Amazing! There you go again. Bitching and moaning and not thinking about just how great this realy is. We stand a chance to witness something wonderful in our life time and all you can do is complain about it. Does nothing good ever come your way?

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