After generating a lot of buzz following the announcement of, well, a big announcement, NASA has finally revealed the big news it has apparently been harboring (and no doubt carefully scrutinizing) for some time: more potentially life-bearing planets. As The Washington Post reports:
The latest update from NASA’s Kepler space telescope — designed to spot distant exoplanets — adds more than 500 new possible planets to the fray. That’s in addition to the 4,175 planets already found by Kepler.
And of those 500 new potential planets, scientists say, a dozen could be remarkably Earth-like. That means they’re less than twice as large as Earth, are potentially rocky and are at the right distance from their host stars to harbor liquid water.
Of that dozen, one planet has been confirmed: Kepler 452b, which sits 1,400 light years away from us and orbits a star much like our own — at the same distance as Earth orbits our sun. It has a “better-than-even chance” of being a rocky planet (like Earth), according to statements from Kepler scientists. We can’t know for sure what the mass of Kepler 452b is, but models suggest that it might be as much as five times as massive as Earth, with gravity twice as strong. A rocky planet that massive would likely have volcanic activity.
This comes just one year after Kepler managed to double the number of known planets outside our humble solar system.
To be sure, NASA and other scientists caution that the label “Earth-like” applies in only the loosest sense: these are planets that are just the right size and distance from their sun, which means they are likely to be rocky and possibly hold liquid water. But without a closer view, there is no telling with any certainty what the conditions and properties of these planets are.
Still, given the current limitations of technology, this is a big step in the right direction. While life could very well exist in planets and other celestial bodies very different from Earth, starting with the criteria we know for sure can yield life makes the most sense. Between this and the recent achievements of New Horizons, 2015 is looking to be a great year for space exploration. If all this can be accomplished by just one of Earth’s many space agencies — and an underfunded one at that — imagine what awaits us as other governments and private companies get in on the action.