Eight new potentially habitable worlds found

The finds could help answer whether we are alone in the Universe

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An artists impression of a planet, like those found, in orbit around an evolved star

Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)


Eight new exoplanets have been confirmed from potential candidates found by NASA’s Kepler probe. Two of them are the most Earth like worlds ever found. The planets are thought to lie in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, the region around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist.

The planets Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b both orbit around red dwarf stars that are smaller and cooler than our Sun, but in many other ways they are very similar to our own planet.

They are a similar size to the Earth, as Kepler-438b is only 12 per cent larger, and Kepler-442b is one-third. The planets also receive a similar amount of light from their stars as the Earth does from the Sun, making these two worlds even more appealing as places with the potential to support life.

“We don't know for sure whether any of the planets in our sample are truly habitable,” explains second author David Kipping of the Havard-Smithsmonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “All we can say is that they're promising candidates.”

The planets were validated from 4,125 candidates found by NASA’s Kepler Space Probe during its primary mission. The spacecraft tracked over 100,000 stars between May 2009 and April 2013, searching for signs of exoplanets in orbit around them.

“Kepler collected data for four years – long enough that we can now tease out the Earth-size candidates in one Earth-year orbits”, said Fergal Mullally, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been to finding Earth twins around other sun-like stars. These are the planets we’re looking for.”

The new discoveries will help estimate how common terrestrial planets are in our Galaxy, and how often they fall in the habitable zone. The measurements will gauge how usual, or unusual, planets like our own are, and work towards answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe. 

“With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth,” said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA's Ames. “The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”


 

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