NASA confirms first Earth-size planet in habitable zone

NASA confirms first Earth-size planet in habitable zone

NASA confirms first Earth-size planet in habitable zone

Written by Staff Writer

24 Jul, 2015 | 8:14 am

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.”

It is a planet a little more than 1 1/2 times as big in radius as Earth. Known as Kepler 452b, it circles a sunlike star in an orbit that takes 385 days, just slightly longer than our own year, putting it firmly in the “Goldilocks” habitable zone where the temperatures are lukewarm and suitable for liquid water on the surface if it has a surface.

The new planet’s size is right on the hairy edge between being rocky like Earth and being a fluffy gas ball like Neptune, according to studies of other such exoplanets. In an email, Jon Jenkins, an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, home of the Kepler project, and lead author of a paper being published in The Astronomical Journal, said the planet had between a 50 percent chance and a 62 percent chance of being rocky, depending on uncertainties in the size of its home star. That would mean its mass is about five times that of Earth.

To determine whether Kepler 452b deserves a place on the honor roll of possible home worlds, astronomers have to measure its mass, which requires being close enough to observe the wobbling of the star as it is tugged around by the planet’s gravity. For now that is impossible, as Kepler 452 is 1,400 light-years away.

The planet is the first to be confirmed in a new list of candidates unveiled by Kepler astronomers at a news conference Thursday. It brings the list of possible planets discovered by Kepler to 4,675.

Astronomers say they now know from Kepler that about 10 percent of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way have potentially habitable Earth-size planets, Kepler 452b probably among them. This means that of the 600 stars within 30 light-years of Earth, there are roughly 60 E.T.-class abodes, planets that could be inspected by a future generation of telescopes.

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