Rocky Planet Discovery: NASA/Harvard Teams Say "Finding a Second Earth Could Happen Anytime Now"
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October 01, 2009

Rocky Planet Discovery: NASA/Harvard Teams Say "Finding a Second Earth Could Happen Anytime Now"


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"It could happen almost any time now. We now have the technological capability to identify Earth-like planets around the smallest stars."

David Latham -Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

To date, Planet hunters have spotted more than 300 planets beyond our solar system, but the vast majority are hot, Jupiter-sized planets that would dwarf the Earth and are almost certainly lifeless.

A few weeks ago, the first rocky planet was found outside solar system, but the surface temperature is far too hot to sustain life. The planet, called CoRoT-7b, is the first planet beyond our solar system with a proven density similar to Earth's, astronomers say. Most known exoplanets are large gas giants like Jupiter.

The tiny planet was discovered orbiting a star slightly smaller and cooler than our sun, about 500 light-years away. As the planet passed in front of its star, it eclipsed a small portion of the star's light, causing a dip in brightness.

Astronomers may be on the brink of discovering a second Earth-like planet, a find that would add fresh impetus to the search for extraterrestrial life. Astronomers from six major centers, including NASA, Harvard and the University of Colorado, agreed at a conference last year that advances in technology suggest scientists are on the verge of being able to detect the presence of small, rocky planets, much like our own, around distant stars for the first time. The planets are considered the most likely habitats for extraterrestrial life.

Finding a rocky planet with an Earth-like density brings us one step closer to discovering another planet similar to our own. A twin-Earth beyond the solar system could provide the best chance of finding life elsewhere in the universe.

The majority of the atoms in our bodies were created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Most of the mass in our bodies are oxygen atoms that were created by generations of stars that preceded the formation of our Sun. We are a subset of the physical universe. And through astronomy this negligible subset is slowly acquiring -however limited- an awareness of the total universe that created it.

The great thing about outer space? It's absolutely full of fantastic stuff just waiting for us to be able to see it:  every time we improve our observations, either the equipment or analysis, something new and brilliant jumps out of the universe saying "Here I am!"  Now fans of interplanetary ideas have been rewarded with the very first rocky planet outside the Solar System.

Everything we've seen previously has been some Jupiter-like gas giant, a huge ball of not-solid-stuff-like-Earth that's still interesting but - since we don't imagine meeting alien clouds very much - not as exciting.  But it isn't the case that space only features balls of gas, it's just that our technology couldn't see anything smaller.  Until now.

A collaboration between the COROT and HARPS systems has detected a rocky expolanet five hundred light years away, a small stone ball less than twice the diameter and about five times the mass of Earth - giving it the same density as our place.  Don't imagine any aliens just yet though (or if you do, make them pretty heat resistant) - it orbits only 2.5 million kilometers from its star, sixteen times closer than even Mercury gets.  The expolanet's "year" is thus shorter than our day - meaning that even if there is an asbestos-based civilization their economy is utterly devastated by birthdays.

COROT is the COnvection ROtation and planetary Transit satellite, scanning thousands of stars to see the tiny dips in brightness caused by planets.  HARPS is the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, a super-sensitive spectrograph installed on a Chilean telescope to accurately identify how fast a wavelength source moves.  Between them, they were able to identify the location of the planet and work out it's orbital radius and speed, thereby working out the mass and size.  And with names like that, they probably combine to form Voltron's big brother.

It's awesome stuff for scientists.  Yet another example of how we'll never be bored, how the universe is simply stuffed with things waiting for us to detect them. 

Luke McKinney

Comments

Sure, anytime now! "Are we there yet?", except we don't know where "where" is yet.

We still have a long way to go, having only found 300+ planets so far with some rough (though advanced for our current state) detection methods. I'll be happy should we find one soon, though I don't expect soon until we start getting into the thousands of planets with much better probing tech.

My bad - that should be "observing" tech. I don't think we're probing that far away in my livable future.

"The expolanet's "year" is thus shorter than our day - meaning that even if there is an asbestos-based civilization their economy is utterly devastated by birthdays."

I enjoyed this comment

"They're made out of meat"

Excellent. And then what do we do? Continue to spend billions on discovering other places that we will not be able to visit for a thousand years? The funds would be better spend on health care and protecting the environment.

How exciting! I have a few questions...

"To date, Planet hunters have spotted more than 300 planets beyond our solar system, but the vast majority are hot, Jupiter-sized planets"

Are these gas planets alone in their solar systems? Are there no rocky planets orbiting along with them like in our neighborhood? Are COROT and HARPS pointing their equipment towards places we already know to be occupied by gas giants? Does Voltron really have a big brother? Will physicists ever accept that space travel is only possible by travelling backwards through time?

Those big planets are just the one's we're able to most easily spot right now, pug. Yes, Voltron really does have a big brother, and a cousin that spun off his own show.

And there is no time, at least not in the sense that it can go backwards - it's only a relative observational parameter that allows our tiny minds to begin computational manipulation of the massive verse that surrounds us.

SiliconJon,

"And there is no time, at least not in the sense that it can go backwards - it's only a relative observational parameter that allows our tiny minds to begin computational manipulation of the massive verse that surrounds us."

Are you saying that the manipulation of time is possible? If so, would you be willing to accept that time has to be manipulated (i.e. move backwards through time) for space travel to be possible?

Ya but any time now must me billions of years. electronic cigarette

There is a resurgence of enthusiasm over Carl Sagan's work. If you haven't already seen this, it's quite a tribute.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc

It was posted just two weeks ago and already has nearly 500,000 views.

This is great news, I'm sick of this place.

1. No atoms were created in the big bang. That all came later as the universe cooled. First came hydrogen atoms, which do occur in our bodies, but all the others (except helium from nuclear fusion of hydrogen) were created later as dying stars went super-nova.

2. The majority of mass in our bodies is not oxygen, it's carbon.

Silly mistakes for an article about science.

3. The argument that we should not spend money on A because B is more important is pointless reductionism. Were that actually to apply to anything, we could never spend any money on anything except B.

The money spent on space exploration is a mere pitance compared to how much we spend on the military. I'd rather the money we spend on just one moden day bomber or fighter jet go to building better observatories (and that is intentionally pluralized - observatories) and other methods of space exploration.

@Ed Shull

You have forgotten one fact: Water is makes up most of the weight of the human body. Now answer by weight what percentage of oxygen is water?

this is honestly scary... has anyone seen the movie Pandoreum?

There is a greater reason to find a second earth. To go there before the Sun destroys this earth.

"The expolanet's "year" is thus shorter than our day - meaning that even if there is an asbestos-based civilization their economy is utterly devastated by birthdays."

I think you mean "stimulated". :)

Someone already pointed it out, but I stopped at the part about the majority of our body's atoms being made in the big bang. False. Why read more and possibly get more false information?

"The majority of the atoms in our bodies were created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago."

What?!? WHere did the others come from?

The article is OK, but the comments are really scary.

Our education is in terrible shape, and so many people so proudly type here utter nonsense, which should make any comedian envy.

I really cannot help - if you guys are so lazy to look once in a while into good books and good articles to know a little about the World we live in.... I cannot help.

One dude claims that billions (???!!!) could be spend in better way. Really, reasonable people probably just never look into comments and never waist time...


Every time I read and hear some new scientific findings specially when it comes to cosmos and SETI, it is like ecstasy for me. It is reassuring that science is the best and only bet that could save humans.

What do you mean by saying "an awareness of the total universe that created it"?! Created?!! If you have any evidence of awareness or creation please bring it on, otherwise stop using this creationist metaphors!

For those naysayers I should tell you there are way too many opportunities for our planet if we find another one out there in universe and don’t worry about travelling, it will be resolved sooner than you think.

@Ed Shull, et al,

From the page: "The majority of the atoms in our bodies were created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Most of the mass in our bodies are oxygen atoms that were created by generations of stars that preceded the formation of our Sun."

At first glance, I thought this was in error, but it's correct. The key words are 'atoms' and 'mass.' If you look up the wikipedia article here, you can see that the above statement is correct.

The only critique I have is that most of our atoms (hydrogen in the form of water) were formed shortly after the big bang.

Wikipedia: "After about 379,000 years the electrons and nuclei combined into atoms (mostly hydrogen)..."

But then again, that's just a wink of an eye on the cosmic timescale... so I'll let Luke slide on that one. ;-)

As I read this, I thought, "tempatures on other planets too hot to sustain life"...hmm, life as WE know it? What's to say there isn't another lifeform living comfortably at 200 degrees? Couldn't there be life living at -900? THink how limited our world view really is. It's like the entire electromagnetic spectrum...we only see a small band. Is there more? Of course there is!

Viva Carl Sagan!

Interesting!

Ummm..

Am I the only who noticed that the KEPLER mission, **SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO DETECT EARTH-SIZE, ROCKY PLANETS** is NOT mentioned whatsoever either in the article or the comments??


Jeez....talk about uninformed...


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