Planet Hunting

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the habitable zone, the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.  Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count.  Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star.  Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

Kepler discovers planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets that cross in front, or transit, the stars.  Kepler requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds.  The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall.  The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Kepler-22b is located 600 light-years away.  While the planet is larger than Earth, its orbit of 290 days around a sun-like star resembles that of our world.  The planet’s host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

The Kepler team is hosting its inaugural science conference at Ames Dec. 5-9, announcing 1,094 new planet candidate discoveries.  Since the last catalog was released in February, the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler has increased by 89 percent and now totals 2,326.  Of these, 207 are approximately Earth-size, 680 are super Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter.

The nearest known Earth like planet so far is Gliese 581D it’s a large rocky Earth like planet, meaning not too hot and not too cold. The Goldilocks Zone, Stephen Hawkings, in his recent Wonders of the Solar System BBC series, Professor Brian Cox backed the idea, too, suggesting Mars, Europa and Titan, a moon of Saturn, as likely places to look. Closer would be better as time moves on we will probably discover thousands if not millions of Earth like planets. Based on the latest Kepler findings, astronomer Seth Shostak estimates within a thousand light-years of Earth there are at least 30,000 of these habitable worlds. Also based on the findings, the Kepler Team has estimated at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way of which at least 500 million are in the habitable zone. The Milky Way Galaxy is 100,000 to 120,000 light years across and The Master Universe Map takes a peek at 1000,000,000,000 light years out, what lies beyond that?

The big problem is getting there for Gliese 581D is 20 light years away. The fastest man-made craft thus far is Voyager 1, racing through space at 11 miles a second. At 39,000mph it would take Voyager One 350,000 years to get there. Lets say we had a ship that could travel 1000 times faster than Voyager 1 we would be moving at a rate of 11,000 miles per second, man that’s hauling the mail at 39,000,000mph. Even at this rate it would take 73 years to arrive at Gliese 581D. So far, all the new planets found have been far larger than Earth, but only because the telescopes used to detect them are not sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized bodies at such distances.

Another breakthrough is the discovery that life on Earth has proven able to colonize its most extreme environments. If life can survive and evolve there, scientists reason, then perhaps nowhere is out-of-bounds.


The Quest


Pandora is the idyllic blue world featured in the movie Avatar.  Its location is a real place: Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun and the most likely destination for our first journey beyond the solar system.


Remarkably, it’s anti-matter, the science fiction fuel of choice that could take us there.  Normally, it’s only created in powerful rockets that roar out of black holes.  We can now produce small quantities in Earth-bound particle colliders. Will we journey out only to plunder other worlds?  Or will we come in peace?  The answer may depend on how we see Earth at that time in the distant future.


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New Worlds

Gliese 581 has been the subject of a huge amount of attention in the quest to discover the first habitable extrasolar planet; in 2010, attention focused on unconfirmed planet g, which would have been close to the middle of the star’s habitable zone, but more recently, in a study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, planet d “can be considered the first confirmed exoplanet that could support Earth-like life.

The star first gained attention after Gliese 581 c, the first low-mass extrasolar planet found near a habitable zone, was discovered in April 2007.  It has since been shown that under known terrestrial planet climate models, Gliese 581 c is likely to have a runaway greenhouse effect, and hence is probably too hot to be habitable, analogous to Venus.  A subsequently discovered planet Gliese 581 d, may be just inside or just outside the outer boundary of the habitable zone (depending in part on the greenhouse properties of its atmosphere), analogous to Mars.  The discovery of exoplanet Gliese 581 e, at the time the least-massive planet known around a normal star, was announced in April 2009.

Excitement spiked again in September 2010 with the claimed discovery of Gliese 581 g, orbiting between c and d, believed to be the planet with the greatest likelihood of having conditions suitable for liquid water at its surface found to date because it is within the middle of the habitable zone.  Its existence remains in dispute.

In September 2012, the discovery of two planets orbiting Gliese 163 ( is an M3.5V red dwarf star located 49 light years (15.0pc) from the sun, in the constellation Dorado). was announced.  One of the planets, Gliese 163 c, about 6.9 times the mass of Earth and somewhat hotter, was considered to be within the habitable zone.  

Text Message from Earth

A Message from Earth (AMFE) is a high-powered digital radio signal that was sent on 9 October 2008 towards Gliese 581 c, a large terrestrial extrasolar planet orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581.  The signal is a digital time capsule containing 501 messages that were selected through a competition on thesocial networking site Bebo.  The message was sent using the RT-70 radar telescope of Ukraine’s National Space Agency.  The signal will reach the planet Gliese 581 c in early 2029.  More than half a million people including celebrities and politicians participated in the AMFE project, which was the world’s first digital time capsule where the content was selected by the public.

As of June 6, 2012 the message has traveled 18.1% of the 191,510,000,000,000-kilometre (1.1900×1014 mi) distance to the Gliese 581 system.

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