NASA recently announced the discovery of over 200 new exoplanets in the Milky Way. Included in the 200 are ten planets that are similar to Earth. Using the Kepler space telescope, NASA researchers have logged just over 4,000 objects that could lead to other planets or stars in the solar system. Nearly 50 of these objects are in the Goldilocks zone, meaning that liquid water could be on the surface leading to life.
The Kepler telescope was launched by NASA to find Earth-like planets in the solar system and to analyze stars in the system similar to our sun. Launched in 2009, it was named after the astronomer Johannes Kepler. With only a photometer – an instrument monitoring the brightness of stars – the Kepler has discovered over 4,000 objects. The data is transmitted to Earth where researchers analyze the data. Kepler is part of a NASA’s low-cost Discovery Program.
Speaking to the Washington Post, Caltech astrophysicist Courtney Dressing said that with the Kepler’s data, changes are “probably not alone” in the universe. Susan Thompson, the lead author of the catalog, stated that because of Kepler’s efforts there are probably about ten “Earth-like” planets currently out there. Several of these planets may even orbit G dwarf stars – or stars that are much like our sun.
One planet could be a “twin” of Earth, dubbed KOI 7711 (Kepler Object of Interest). KOI 7711 is about 30 percent larger than Earth and about the “same distance from its star.” The New York Times reported that KOI 7711 had an orbit of “almost exactly one year.” But Thompson cautioned about calling KOI 7711 as “Earth-like,” the Washington Post said. While Kepler can detect objects, it cannot honestly detect if the object even has an atmosphere or water.
Another group of scientists, led by Benjamin Fulton from the California Institute of Technology, took Kepler’s data and compared it to data collected from Earth’s telescopes to determine the “sizes and composition of 2,000 exoplanets.” With the data, the researchers found that the planets fell into two groups: “super-Earths” or “gaseous mini-Neptunes.” Super-Earths were rocky planets that could be up to twice the size of Earth while mini-Neptunes had no solid surface and could be up to three times larger than Earth. No planets currently found, fell into both categories.
Kepler’s mission officially ended in 2013 when it could no longer scan the Cygnus constellation properly. But NASA was able to use light particles to continue searching for exoplanets. With enough fuel till 2018, Kepler’s current mission is called K2. NASA hopes to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite which is slated to look for bright stars with small planets. Thompson said that while Kepler will be the “end of an era,” she went on to say that space agencies still have a lot of work to do to “understand how common Earths are in the galaxy.”
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL