It turns out last week’s Pluto announcements were just small potatoes. Today, NASA revealed its discovery of a very, very distant planet – about 1,400 light years away – that resembles Earth more than any previously discovered planet.
In fact, the planet, which scientists are calling Kepler-452b, is the most similar to earth that scientists have ever discovered. It’s a little over one and a half times the radius of Earth, and has a 385-day orbit around a star in the same class as our sun. While its orbit is a little farther out from its star, the star is 20 percent more luminous.
Everything seems to add up. In an e-mail to the New York Times, Jon Jenkins, the lead author of a forthcoming paper on the planet, said that there was a 50 to 62% chance of the planet being rocky. Everything else about the planet places it firmly in the “Goldilocks zone,” and a rocky surface could mean water, and water could mean life.
Scientists like those odds. Another tidbit giving them hope is the planet’s age: Kepler-452b is 1.5 billion years older than earth, meaning that life has had plenty of time to take off there and, hopefully, not destroy all life on the planet through unsustainable, reckless, and cynical exploitation of its resources.
Answering the ultimate question
The announcement, which also includes the discovery of 11 other planet candidates, brings the number of planets discovered by the Kepler mission to 4,696. Scientists have already confirmed that every star could potentially have at least one planet with liquid water. So when do we actually get to find out whether life exists on any of these places, let alone begin to think about whether we could ever establish contact?
Unsurprisingly, scientists are working on coming up with a solution. Earlier this month, a team of American astronomers called on NASA to launch a supersized Hubble space telescope in the 2030s with the express purpose of finding life on other planets. Here’s Dennis Overbye writing about the call to action in the New York Times a few weeks ago:
This High Definition Space Telescope would be five times as big and 100 times as sensitive as the Hubble, with a mirror nearly 40 feet in diameter, and would orbit the sun about a million miles from Earth.
Such a telescope, the astronomers said, would be big enough to find and study the dozens of Earthlike planets in our nearby neighborhood. It could resolve objects only 300 light-years in diameter — the nucleus of a small galaxy or a gas cloud on the way to collapsing into a star and planets, say — anywhere in the observable universe.
If all goes as planned, most of us might live to witness the discovery of life on another planet.