Science

Kepler mission, Milky Way
NASA/JPL CALTECH/AP
This image, taken by the Kepler telescope and released by NASA on Thursday, April 16, 2009,
shows an expansive, 100-square-degree patch of sky in our Milky Way galaxy where it hopes
to find Earth-like planets.

Scientists Optimistic About Finding Planets That Could Sustain Human Life

January 08, 2010 04:20 PM
by Colleen Brondou
Never before have astronomers been closer to answering the question: “Are we alone?”

Kepler’s Planetary Census Points to Earth-Like Planets

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At the annual American Astronomical Society conference this week, NASA officials said that “within four or five years they should discover the first Earth-like planet where life could develop, or may have already,” Seth Borenstein writes for the Associated Press.

With the help of the Kepler telescope, scientists are taking a planetary census of a small slice of the galaxy and turning up new planets almost daily. The discovery of planets outside our solar system—called exoplanets—number more than 400 so far. But to sustain life, Borenstein explains that a planet would need to be in the right location (too close to its star and the planet would be too hot, too far away and the planet would be too cold) and be rocky rather than gaseous.

Kepler has looked at 43,000 stars that are comparable in size to our sun and discovered that approximately two-thirds of them are “as life-friendly and nonviolent as our nearest star.” Kepler scientist Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley believes that “70 percent of all stars have rocky planets.” If any of these rocky planets are in the right place in relation to their stars, they could sustain life.

Given the numbers, and the power of the Kepler to look at bodies that were too small to be detected before, scientists are excited by the possibilities.

“The fundamental question is: Are we alone?” said Simon “Pete” Worden, an astronomer who heads NASA’s Ames Research Center. “For the first time, there’s an optimism that sometime in our lifetimes we’re going to get to the bottom of that.”

Background: 5 new planets discovered

Earlier this week, Kepler scientist Bill Borucki announced that five new exoplanets had been discovered. The planets, referred to as “roasters” for their extreme surface temperatures and proximity to stars, are larger than Neptune and orbit their stars in less than four days. Borenstein explains that all five were too large and in the wrong location to be Earth-like.

Related Topic: Vatican’s stance on aliens

Even the Roman Catholic Church had thoughts to share on the Astronomical Society conference. “These are big questions that reflect upon the meaning of the human race in the universe,“ Rev. Jose Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, said Wednesday, according to Borenstein.

In 2008, Funes was quoted in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano as saying that it is possible that there could be intelligent life forms on other planets

“How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Funes said. “Just as we consider earthly creatures as ‘a brother,’ and ‘sister,’ why should we not talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother?’ It would still be part of creation.”As part of the International Year of Astronomy, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held its first Study Week on Astrobiology in November 2009 at the Vatican. Funes explained why the Vatican was focusing on the subject.

“Although astrobiology is an emerging field and still a developing subject, the questions of life’s origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very interesting and deserve serious consideration,” he said, according to the Guardian. “These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications.”

Reference: Kepler mission; astronomy guide

The Kepler mission Web site features news about the mission, streaming video of the spacecraft and a live blog.

Visit findingDulcinea’s Astronomy Web Guide for links to astronomy history and news, and tips on buying a telescope and how to find constellations or join an astronomy club.

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