200 Earth-Sized Planets --The Latest Kepler Mission Findings
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March 14, 2012

200 Earth-Sized Planets --The Latest Kepler Mission Findings

 

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The most recent Kepler news release from February 28 reveals that the total count of Kepler planet candidates has reached 2321 and 1790 host stars, with 1091 planets emerging in the new analysis. The headline of the findings is profound: "A clear trend toward smaller planets at longer orbital periods is evident with each new catalog release. This suggests that Earth-size planets in the habitable zone are forthcoming if, indeed, such planets are abundant."

The Kepler catalog database now holds over 200 Earth-size planet candidates and over 900 that are smaller than twice the Earth’s size, which makes for a 197 percent increase in this type of planet candidates, with planets larger than 2 Earth radii increasing at about 52 percent. 

Ten planets in the habitable zone (out of a total of 46 planet candidates there) are near Earth in size, and the fraction of host stars with multiple candidates has grown from 17 to 20 percent.

In a March 8th analysis in Space Daily, John Rehing suggests that current Kepler findings might prove that Earthlike planets may be extremely rare. But 16 months of observation is insufficient to detect any precisely Earthlike planet, because the ground rule that only those earth-sized candidates with three transits observed means that a minimum of 24 months of observation will be required.

However, as new data comes in, Rehling says the barriers enforced by the geometric bias are pushed outward, and as more candidates are reported, more terrestrial worlds like the Earth, rather than giants like Jupiter, are revealed.

This release shows two favorable and profound trends. As the Kepler Mission team put it, "With each new catalog release a clear progression toward smaller planets at longer orbital periods is emerging. This suggests that Earth-size planets in the habitable zone are forthcoming if, indeed, such planets are abundant."

However, Rehling notes that the fine print of this latest release tend toward more pessimistic projections.Mainly, "We see more Earth sized planets which are very close to their stars, and therefore likely very hot; and, separately, we see more giant planets which are located farther out from their stars."

Overall, our solar system is typical in placing larger planets farther out than smaller planets. However, it is quantitatively atypical according to Rehling: "While Kepler shows us the happy result that there are almost certainly several planets for every star, it shows us that our solar system is distributed freakishly outwards, in comparison to more typical planetary systems."

The data also indicates that as Kepler's mission continues, it may not find precise Earth analogues, although this will depend in part upon luck. The worst ramification is that most Kepler candidates are located quite far from Earth, making possible follow-up science with spectroscopy and imaging extremely challenging.

We would be better able to make observations of earth-like planets, Rehling concludes, located closer to us, "at distances of tens of light years instead of hundreds. But if the abundance of earthlike planets is only a few percent, there will be comparatively fewer of these worlds in our neighborhood."

Any future effort to find and examine earthl-like planets in our corner of the Milky Way will be limited by the frequency of such planets, and this result serves to dim prospects somewhat, or to require considerably larger and more expensive telescopes than would be needed if the more optimistic projections proved out.

Out of the 156,000 stars being monitored by Kepler, we are effectively searching only 27 for perfect Earth analogues: If they are less abundant than 3%, we may very likely find none, unless the  Kepler's mission is extended to allow several years more of data collection.

"I think the discoveries we're making are showing what could be done if we continue to extend it," said Charlie Sobeck, Kepler deputy project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "So we're hopeful, but there's no guarantee."

When Kepler launched in 2009, the telescope's science mission was set to run through November 2012 — a lifetime of 3.5 years. But the instrument could operate for six years, or perhaps longer, if it receives more funding, team members have said. Its mission is to find roughly Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zones of their parent stars — a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it on the alien worlds.Kepler's overall goal is to help scientists determine just how common such planets may be throughout our galaxy.

It would cost about $20 million per year to keep the Kepler mission running at its current level of activity beyond November 2012, Sobeck added. 

Kepler finds alien planets using what's called the transit method. The telescope detects the telltale dips in brightness caused when an alien planet crosses in front of, or transits, its star from Kepler's perspective. Kepler needs to witness three of these transits to firmly identify a planet candidate.

This technique has been extremely effective. In just its first four months of operation, Kepler discovered 1,235 exoplanet candidates. So far, two dozen of them have been confirmed by follow-up observations — including Kepler-16b, a world with two suns that was announced recently.Kepler team members have estimated that 80 percent or so of the telescope's candidates will probably end up being the real deal. If that's the case, Kepler's finds to date would more than double the number of known alien planets.

The Kepler main mission is to help scientists determine just how many potentially habitable, Earth-size alien planets may be out there. Of the first 1,235 planet candidates, 68 are roughly Earth-size and 54 appear to orbit in their stars' habitable zones. And five candidates meet both of those criteria.

"What we're seeing is this trend — the smaller the planet, the more of them there are," Sobeck told Space.com. "That's great news for the idea of finding Earth-like planets, or Earth-size planets. Once you have Earth-size planets, all it has to do is be in the right orbit, and it's habitable."

 

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Comments

Then what?

At one time we humans thought the Earth was flat, technology and exploration proved that wrong. We thought the Earth was the center of the known universe, once again proven wrong by technology and observation. We thought Earth like planets in habitable zones we're rare, once again proven wrong by technology. We have assumed complex life can only arise given a certain set of circumstances. Again we are being proven wrong by exploration and technology. Humanity has a long history of stupid assumptions mostly brought on by religion. The biggest being that we are the only intelligent life in the cosmos. Which has got to be the height of human arrogance and stupidity. Technology and exploration will prove us wrong here also, its only a matter of time.

remember that those findings are only the systems that happen to be in the same rotation plan of those planets with us, so less than 5 percent(or lot less) of what actually is there.

Great comments...Agree 100%... Every time I read a scientist talking in the direction of life being rare and the earth as some "special" planet, I get so frustrated... I look forward to the day when the question of "Are We Alone" is answered..

With all the necessary conditions for life of any sort to exist, maybe there is something/someone out there making it possible. No?

"Once you have Earth-size planets, all it has to do is be in the right orbit, and it's habitable."

This isn't quite true. That only gives you about the right gravity, and about the right temperature -- with some emphasis on "about." For a planet to be truly habitable, it will need to have a decent magnetic field to push away harmful radiation, and a breathable atmosphere.

The magnetic field requires a liquid, molten core of iron and/or other ferrous metals, and (as I understand it) a regular revolution of days to keep that core spinning. That revolution means that the planet can't be tidally locked with its star.

An oxygen-rich atmosphere virtually requires a high amount of plant life. While I think this would probably be possible without, it would really help to have a large moon in orbit -- not necessarily as large (by proportion) as ours, but large enough to affect the tides and the day length.

In short, while I have no doubt whatsoever that there are plenty of these planets to be had in the Milky Way, I think we'll find that they're a lot sparser than this article seems to intimate.

1st Note* Humans never believed the Earth was flat. Take your own guesses how they knew it was not before you look it up. They did think it was the center of the Universe, and some people still think they are.

2nd - I believe the sample size that Kepler is taking is too small to make any guesses as what we will find. But for now we can rejoice to know that there are other planets - and LOTS of them. Kepler has found it says 900+ Planets of the right size? Or ish at least? Our star has 8 planets, and 1 has life. Others may have at least bacterial, and don't forget about the moons. So for now it's a promising ratio.

Though much like everything else we know of, perhaps we'll find parts of the Galaxy that are teeming, and others that are sparse. Every day it's fun to wake up and hope something else has been found.

And What's this with Kepler only be funded until November? What a crock. Polititions suck.

We'll thank you for proving to me that my entire grade school education in this area was not only a giant waste of my time but also false. I was taught as a child that Columbus set out to prove to the church of the day that a widely held belief that the earth was flat. Come to know find out that it was all BS. So is anything i learned in school during social studies class actually true? Public schools man, public schools. I'm surprised i came out being able to read and write for all the good they do.
Why are they allowed to teach children false history?

To prove the theory false i meant *

Well thank you for pointing out that my entire childhood schooling was false. Why are they allowed to teach children false history? Public schools man... I'm shocked i came out of them able to read and write at all. All these years i thought Columbus set out to prove the Earth wasn't flat to the church of the day.

Don't feel bad, I was taught the same thing in Catholic school. It's common folklore, everyone says it, they say the sun is yellow too. It's not like I never did. One day I thought, "the moon is round, no one ever thought it was flat," then looked it up. I'm sure I still repeat folklore, but hopefully I'll ask why. Columbus looks noble as an explorer, less so as a Slave owner, murderer and theif. Tough to teach the kids that's the guy who discovered your continent. Not someone to look up too.

The Latest Kepler Mission Findings is a very great improvement to our humans.Maybe One day we can live to another planet

With out being able to travel around the world or see it from a different perspective, how could humans believe the Earth was a sphere? The moon is a poor example because the same side always faces us. For all they knew it was like a coin.

Without leaving earth, how could you measure it's circumfrence? It was done thousands of years ago. Look it up, very interesting how smart we used to be.

Build another 1000 Keplers and point them in every direction.

Agreed Chris. Time for us to evolve.

Why keep funding something thats pretty much PROVED there are many Habitable Planets out there. In a picture 12 inches BY 12 inches.
Just get IT. We are not alone ....

Do we have any idea how gravity changed probability of life, or just how it would effect earth organisms? Ptential life is almost certainly nearly infinite in variety, isn't it? Also, if we are finding planets by dimming and wobbling stars, how do we know if we are including potential moons in a planet's mass?


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