Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Earth's Twin Kepler-22b Discovered "Next Door"!

Our world felt a little less special on Monday, as NASA's Kepler mission announced the discovery of an "Earth-sized" planet orbiting a "sun-like" star.

Yes, another one.

But this new orb merits special status -- because it's the first planet to be officially confirmed to exist in the so-called "habitable zone." It's an ideal size. It orbits just the right distance from its star, which is a lot like our own sun.

This means that the planet, called Kepler-22b, is the best bet yet to be a place with a thick atmosphere and a wet landscape.

The discovery "is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth's twin," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, visiting Moffett Field's NASA Ames for the five-day First Kepler Science Conference.

If this all sounds a little familiar, it's because we're getting better and better at finding things.

Twice before astronomers have announced near-Earth-size planets in habitable zones, though clear confirmation has proved elusive.

The tally of confirmed and "candidate" planets grows every day. Just a year and a half into Kepler's planet-hunting mission, there are 28 confirmed planets and 2,326 candidate planets -- of which a stunning 1,000 have been found since February.

Of the 54 candidate planets in the "habitable" zone, where liquid water could exist, Kepler-22b is the first to be confirmed. This milestone will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Earthlike candidates

The powerful telescopes are finding other things, too. In another big announcement Monday, using telescopes at the Hawaii-based Keck Observatory and the McDonald Observatory in Texas, astronomers at UC Berkeley announced the discovery of the largest black holes to date -- two monsters with masses equivalent to 10 billion suns that are capable of consuming anything, even light, within a region five times the size of our solar system.

The $600 million Kepler spacecraft peers at about 150,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, trying to detect any change in star brightness that suggests a passing planet. Three dips, or dimming, must be seen for confirmation.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates that the spacecraft finds, validating their identification.
"The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we're honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead at San Jose State University.

"The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods," she said.

The planet, named Kepler-22b, is 2.4 times wider than Earth.

But the true nature of the new planet remains a mystery. No one knows whether it's rocky, gaseous or liquid.

If it has a surface, astronomers estimate temperatures in the comfy 70-degree range -- T-shirt weather.

To better understand the Kepler 22-b's composition, it is first necessary to measure its density and mass -- that is, how heavy it is. The Kepler telescope can't do this, but Keck and other ground-based telescopes can. Scientists hope to try this next summer.

And we don't yet have the tools to detect faraway signs of metabolism, with biological markers like atmospheric oxygen or methane.

But any notion of earthlings settling down on Kepler 22-b has one highly significant challenge: distance. The space shuttle, heading out today at 17,000 mph, would reach our nearest star system -- Alpha Centauri, slightly more than four light years away -- in about 165,000 years. The new planet is 600 light years away -- so that same shuttle would get there in 23 million years.

SETI tunes in
But Kepler-22b seems to have several intriguing similarities with Earth. Its home star, some 600 light years away, is "almost a solar twin," Batalha said. So the light hitting the planet's surface would be almost the same color as the light that illuminates Earth.

And Kepler-22b's year is almost the same length as an Earth year: 290 days instead of 365.

It is a prime target for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, carried out with the dedicated 42-dish Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, said Jill Tarter of Mountain View's SETI Institute.

A preliminary search for radio signals from Kepler-22b is already under way, she said. There are billions of radio channels to be examined.

Discovering all these new planets sounds impressive -- but it's only a prologue to a far larger story, according to SETI Institute's Seth Shostak, in response to Monday's news.

"Extrapolating the results from searches, it's safe to say that the vast majority of stars are ringed by planets," he wrote. "Indeed, the best guess is that the tally of planets in our own galaxy is approximately a trillion."

"It's reasonable to imagine," according to Shostak, "that Kepler-22b has a billion siblings in our galaxy: a billion other Earthlike worlds threading the vast tracts of the Milky Way."

The above post credited entirely to: New planet found in habitable zone where 'Earth's twin' may be found, at

See YouTube video at: Kepler-22b Discovery Video

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