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Space Science

Kepler Investigator Says 'Galaxy Is Rich In Earth-Like Planets' 206

Posted by kdawson
from the member-of-a-larger-club dept.
astroengine writes "In a recent presentation, Kepler co-investigator Dimitar Sasselov unexpectedly announced news that the Kepler Space Telescope has discovered scores of candidate Earth-like exoplanets. Not waiting for the official NASA press release to announce the discovery, Sasselov went into some detail at the TEDGlobal talk in Oxford, UK earlier this month. This surprise announcement comes hot on the heels of controversy that erupted last month when the Kepler team said they were withholding data on 400 exoplanet candidates until February 2011. In light of this, Sasselov's unofficial announcement has already caused a stir. Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, has commented on this surprise turn of events, saying it is really annoying 'that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements. And then the project's Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience — offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.' Although Sasselov could have handled the announcement better (and waited until NASA made the official announcement), this has the potential to be one of the biggest astronomical discoveries of our time — so long as these Earth-like 'candidates' are confirmed by further study."
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Kepler Investigator Says 'Galaxy Is Rich In Earth-Like Planets'

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  • by SpinningCone (1278698) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:23AM (#33042798)

    can we just start calling them 'M' Class ?

    • by mdwh2 (535323) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @09:12AM (#33043404) Journal

      The Star Trek classification system would indeed be far better than the whole "What's a planet" argument definitions we've had (which has been hard enough with just our solar system), and things like Dwarf planets etc. We have classes for stars, so why not planets...

      • I'm not sure I like the Dwarf planet designation either, I'd suspect that if they wanted to classify something as being smaller than a dwarf but still a planet they'd call it a hobbit planet.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          I don't like "Dwarf Planet" either... what's wrong with "Planetoid"?

          • by sznupi (719324)

            Yeah, what is wrong with it? It's used just fine... (just for something different than dwarf planets)

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Ipeunipig (934414)

          They prefer to be called Little Planets.

          'Dwarf' makes them feel belittled amongst their peers.

      • by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @11:18AM (#33045422) Homepage

        But we do have it, that's the point. And "planet" simply means one type of planetary bodies already.

        Dward planet, terrestrial planet, gas giant (among them distinction between neptunes/jupiters and hot/cold), sub-brown dwarf; iron planet, chthonian planet, carbon planet, ocean planet, trojan planet, rogue planet...there's plenty of different classes.

        Now you'd want to replace descriptive and flexible monikers with rigid symbol classifications?
        OK, so perhaps, maybe, you're used to Star Trek fantasy setting, which also nicely covers most of the latin alphabet...but here, let me show you how it would look in practice:

        Class (put in one symbol from this alphabet [wikipedia.org],; /. & unicode...) Planet
        Class (put several, if some body is like that) Planet

        And you know, the best would be to just settle with what a planet was for Greeks - that includes the Moon and the Sun... - but with Star Trek classification system.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dpilot (134227)

        Might not be a bad idea, but we're scarcely ready to tackle the task. We're starting with a sample-size of 9, (or is that 8?) with direct, personal, and extensive observation of only 1, fairly extensive robot observation of 1 more, somewhat less robot observation of 2 more, and some robot and telescopic observation of the rest. Then we get into those pesky "moons", some of which might well be considered "planets" if they orbited the sun instead of some planet. (Think Pandora, for a fictional extreme exam

    • Class M planets aren't just a certain size, they also have to have an nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere and a lot of liquid water.

  • Small slip (Score:5, Insightful)

    by asukasoryu (1804858) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:27AM (#33042838)
    Seems like the only info released was a distribution of planet size. Without planet composition, I would describe these as Earth-size, not Earth-like. It's a little early to get excited.
    • Kepler (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SpeedyGonz (771424)
      I agree. Water presence? Temperature within habitable range? At least a primordial atmosphere? Not sure if Kepler is the right tool to collect that kind of data, but to call them "earth like" seems premature. Granted, if the size approaches that of earth chances are they're rocky, solid planets, but that's it.
      • It was my impression that when researchers called something "earth like" they were referring to a relatively small planet with a rocky core. By that definition both Venus and Mars are Earth-like even if, on the whole they are considerably different than Earth.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          It was my impression that when researchers called something "earth like" they were referring to a relatively small planet with a rocky core. By that definition both Venus and Mars are Earth-like even if, on the whole they are considerably different than Earth.

          As far as rocky core planets go, wouldn't Earth be a rather large one? I'm curious to see where the tipping point from rocky core to gas giant is, since there doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

          Mercury>Mars>Venus>Earth>Neptune/Uranus

          The

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Chris Burke (6130)

            There are 'super Earth' planets, but at those distances we really don't know how much gas vs rock there is.

            Well we kinda do, because we can also measure the size of the planet, and based on that get its density. The super-earths appear far too dense to be gaseous.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by cusco (717999)
            "how large can a rocky planet be before it has a significant atmosphere?"

            Depends on its initial orbit, final orbit, and the cloud it condensed out of. Too close to its star and the gasses get blown off, too far away and they freeze out. Too little iron and the magnetic field is too week to protect it from the solar wind. Too much hydrogen and not enough other gasses and it escapes to space. Too few comets in the cloud and it never accumulates enough water for reflective clouds.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by dryeo (100693)

              Venus is an exception to some of your points. Large dense atmosphere without a magnetic field. Lots of reflective cloud without any water.
              Who knows what other types of planets we might find.

      • I agree. Water presence? Temperature within habitable range? At least a primordial atmosphere? Not sure if Kepler is the right tool to collect that kind of data, but to call them "earth like" seems premature.

        Exoplanet spectroscopy has been done, but is a very new science and extremely difficult. And first, we have to be looking at a specific planet with specific instruments.

        Kepler, on the other hand, is continuously monitoring a region of the sky and some hundreds of thousands of stars for signs of planet

    • Re:Small slip (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tverbeek (457094) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:49AM (#33043068) Homepage

      You can be sure that the mainstream media will fail to make the distinction between "Earth-size" and the more vaguely-defined (but more comprehensive sounding) "Earth-like". These planets are "Earth-like" in the same sense that noxious, caustic, stifling, lung-crushing Venus is "Earth-like"... if that.

      • Venus has a thriving environment and many intelligent species. Guess you never read John Carter goes to Venus.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Chris Burke (6130)

        These planets are "Earth-like" in the same sense that noxious, caustic, stifling, lung-crushing Venus is "Earth-like"... if that.

        I think it would technically be acidic, since the atmosphere contains sulfuric acid, and 'caustic' conventionally refers only to bases. ;)

        Anyway, yeah, these are earth-like in the same sense as Venus.

        Maybe even less so, since Kepler would not have been able to detect a planet in a Venus-like orbit yet. So more like... earth-like in the same sense as Mercury. :)

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anne_Nonymous (313852)

      >> I would describe these as Earth-size, not Earth-like.

      Yeah seriously, and even if they have life on any of these "Earth-like" planets, how many have advanced to our level of sophistication? Without pro-wrestling, advanced snack-cake technology, and those "one quick tip to lose weight" ads on the internet, they have most definitely not achieved "Earth-like" status.

    • Exactly. Venus is almost exactly earth's size to within a thousand miles. It is certainly not "earthlike" - not unless you have pools of molten lead in your back yard.
    • It's great that we can now detect Earth-sized planets, but it's starting to look like Jovian moons are a more common life-friendly environment. In our solar system alone there are three, possibly four moons of Jupiter and Saturn that may be able to support life.

      Since the moons get most of their heat from the gravitational pull of their planets rather than from their star, they aren't dependent on getting lucky in the narrow "Goldilocks Zone" of a system.

      It may be that aquatic, vent-feeding moon ecosystems m

  • If data shows that the number of planets which could support life like ours is high then another factor must be pushed down, because we aren't getting any visitors, and we aren't getting any communications from other species. My bet is that the vast majority of those planets have run away from having a habitual environment by turning into planets like Venus or Mars. We are lucky that our CO2 is locked up in limestone, not free in the atmosphere.

    Gentlemen, prepare your terraforming equipment...

    • I read before somewhere that any planets with an atmosphere similar to ours would be likely covered in water. I think we're meant to have lost a lot of our water or potential water in the same event that created the moon (ie huge asteroid kicking a whole lot of crap into orbit)? Sorry if that's completely wrong, can't remember the details but hopefully someone more knowledgeable will pipe up.

    • Is interstellar space travel feasable?

      If there is no faster then light method of travelling possible, then there are unlikely to be any visitors ever. End of story.

      And while 400 planets sounds like a lot, in the milky way it isn't much at all, especially if you consider the short timespan that humans have been capable of even seeing into deep space let alone make their presence known. And there are countless disasters that can wipe out a civilization.

      There are aliens out there, in the deep vastness of sp

      • by gilleain (1310105)

        There are aliens out there, in the deep vastness of space and time. Just as somewhere there is a smart intelligent girl that totally digs D&D. To bad she was born 200 years ago.

        So she's a vampire, too? Cool.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by yotto (590067)

        And while 400 planets sounds like a lot, in the milky way it isn't much at all, especially if you consider the short timespan that humans have been capable of even seeing into deep space let alone make their presence known. And there are countless disasters that can wipe out a civilization.

        It's not 400 planets in the galaxy. It's 400 out of 700 planets they've looked at. That implies 4/7ths of the planets in the galaxy are "Earth sized."

        Interestingly, this matches up with what we have in our own Solar Syst

      • by sznupi (719324)

        On top of it, the only mode of interstellar travel which seems feasible, with a technology that's almost certainly within the range of advanced civilization - embryo colonisation - would strongly promote ignoring systems where there is another civilization already; maybe even ignoring those with highly developed biosphere.

        And we're shifting pretty quickly to methods of radio communication which look more and more like noise, nvm getting weaker and weaker in regards to transmission power...

      • by delt0r (999393) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @11:33AM (#33045708)

        If there is no faster then light method of travelling possible, then there are unlikely to be any visitors ever. End of story.

        This is quite false. You have left out a entire section of very possible developments.

        • Longevity treatments. Whats 100 years when you live for 1000?
        • "Cryo sleep" or suspended animation. No reason why it can't work.
        • "Generation ships". No reason why a big arse space ship wouldn't be a pleasure to be part of. Even if you don't care about the destination.
        • robotic overloads. You don't need AI here.

        Note that nuclear fission fragment rockets can get ~5% C. Antimatter much more... sure we aren't doing it now. But there is no physics stopping it. Unlike FLT.

        All we are missing is the desire or need to go in the first place.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Kjella (173770)

        I think there are more possibilities than FTL travel, just not that we'd see. There are realistic propulsion systems for non-FTL craft that could reach other stars in a few thousand years. Damn long time, right? Well, consider that we have mayflies that live less than a day. If they could live to be 100 years like us, that'd be almost forever. Who is to say we can't find ways to become not 130 or 150 years old but many thousands of years old? The universe got time, it's billions of years old and will be goo

    • Re:Drake (Score:4, Interesting)

      by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:51AM (#33043090) Homepage Journal

      My bet is that the vast majority of those planets have run away from having a habitual environment by turning into planets like Venus or Mars.

      I'm wondering how close to Earth's size a planet has to be to be an "Earth sized" planet. Venus is an Earth sized planet, and as you say, is in no way habitable. Mars isn't that much smaller, but has little atmosphere and no magnetic field; I don't see how life could exist on a planet without a magnetic field to keep stellar radiation out.

      There are a whole lot more variables than size to consider.

      we aren't getting any visitors

      Maybe Doctor Fielgud [slashdot.org] and his colleagues will figure out that a "moon sized double planetoid" can harbor life if it has an iron core, and that oxygen isn't a poison to all species. And maybe the NASA people will start looking at satellites of gas giants around other stars. Meanwhile, that bit of fiction I linked gives a possible explanation as to why nobody's calling. Here's another bit of fiction [baetzler.de] with an alternative suggestion.

      • by sznupi (719324)

        Magnetic field is in large part about keeping the atmosphere from being blown away by stellar wind, not radiation per se - magnetosphere doesn't stop electromagnetic waves, and as for particle radiation - the atmosphere would stop most of it.

        Anyway, it could be that Earht itself is a borderline planet for life [harvard.edu], just big enough for plate tectonics (something which Venus lacks, and which probably contributed greatly to its conditions); maybe even slightly too small in itself, but was pushed into habitable ran

        • by Narishma (822073)

          Does plate tectonics depend on the size of the planet? I mean there are some moons around Saturn or Jupiter that have plate tectonics but are a lot smaller than Venus.

          • by sznupi (719324)

            Well, as far as we can tell now - they don't have plate tectonics (maybe Europa, in a way...); they are geologically active, sure, but not with plate tectonics. And that activity isn't a function of their size, but tidal forces.

          • by delt0r (999393)
            The tidal forces on these moons drive the plate tectonics by keeping the core molten. So the restriction is based on "orbiting a star". Then the planet needs to be a certain size to stay volcanically active. However last I heard. The Jury was still out on why Venus has no plate tectonics.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Anyway, it could be that Earht itself is a borderline planet for life [harvard.edu], just big enough for plate tectonics (something which Venus lacks, and which probably contributed greatly to its conditions); maybe even slightly too small in itself, but was pushed into habitable range by the collision with Theia (the collision that spawned the Moon)

          If you look at Earth objectively, we could be living on what so many sci-fi stories like to use as examples of 'prison' planets. Highly hostile worlds which se

      • by bonehead (6382)

        There are a whole lot more variables than size to consider.

        Definitely.

        Another one I wonder about is just how necessary a large moon is? Earth is fairly unusual in just how large our moon is compared to the planet it orbits. This gives our oceans strong tides.

        Without those strong tides sloshing the water around, would life have formed in still, stagnant pools of water? If it did, would it have spread? Evolved?

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          Yes, I mentioned that in the linked sci-fi story I wrote, where the reporter mentions the "double planetoid".

    • ...take the prime directive into account ?

      (because it should.)
    • by sznupi (719324)

      You're missing one important possible reason - while habitable planets and indeed life might be common (hey, there are over a dozen suspect bodies only in our system), the conditions for complex multicellular life and very complex, competitve ecosystems (possibly promoting intelligence at some point) might be not.

      How many billion yers before Earth spawned a moderately intelligent species? How many millenia before that species had even rudimentary technical civilization?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by c6gunner (950153)

      My bet is that the vast majority of those planets have run away from having a habitual environment by turning into planets like Venus or Mars.

      So you're suggesting that they have an occasional atmosphere? I don't know. Usually, once a planet gives up its atmosphere habit, it doesn't go back.

    • If data shows that the number of planets which could support life like ours is high then another factor must be pushed down, because we aren't getting any visitors, and we aren't getting any communications from other species...

      ...that we know of. I know it sounds kind of tinfoil-hatty, but it is not unreasonable to think that if ET's were visiting this planet, they might try to keep themselves hidden, so as not to alarm anyone. I would also think that if they had made contact, say with a government, that government might keep it a secret as well (see sig for more insight). Governments aren't the most forthcoming institutions these days, their military and intelligence operations even less so.

      Besides that many people, includin

      • There's a version of this that uses much less tinfoil. If ETs were visiting every ten or twenty thousand years on average but didn't leave any large-scale, durable evidence behind, we wouldn't know about it. There could be dozens of robotic probes scattered around the solar system, but unless they were huge, obviously artificial or actively broadcasting we'd think they were meteoroids or small asteroids.

        I'm not suggesting this is true, but merely that with the time and distance scales involved it may be d

    • we aren't getting any visitors, and we aren't getting any communications from other species

      How sure are you?

  • That the galaxy is also reach in Berlusconi? I hope the astronomers are definitely wrong.
    For the sake of mankind.
  • Dysfunctional (Score:3, Insightful)

    by m0s3m8n (1335861) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:34AM (#33042920)
    Is the Kepler team dysfunctional, or do they just enjoy pissing on one another?
    • by Vahokif (1292866)
      Or the guy's just excited and couldn't help himself. It seems like a perfectly human thing to me.
    • by sznupi (719324)

      It's probably more like many members of their team being really excited. And many observers.

      What the Kepler mission is doing, and any possible outcomes, is mighty exciting after all.

    • by corbettw (214229)

      Aren't those two things kinda, you know, the same? I can't imagine a functional team would enjoy pissing in each other's Wheaties.

    • In and academic pursuit there are always heated debates and disagreements. The debate process is part of the formulation of ideas. It doesn't work the same way as in the corporate world, where you need to have everyone work as a cog in a machine. Academics always have strong views on certain things. Its probably a case of some of the team being overly excited, some being more reserved. In the end most of them will reach consensus based on data analysis. Its part of progress.
  • In other news, scientists discover that the universe is full of matter.

    • by tverbeek (457094)

      I thought it was mostly empty space, not even close to full.

      • by sznupi (719324)

        On one hand - "real" vacuum is nowhere to be found. On the other - you are mostly empty space, too; considering the sizes of subatomic particles and "empty" space between them.

        We mostly just live in a curious range of size, between quantum and cosmological, that gives a bit nonrepresentive ideas about the universe; it can be easily said to be full of matter.

        • On one hand - "real" vacuum is nowhere to be found. On the other - you are mostly empty space, too; considering the sizes of subatomic particles and "empty" space between them.

          We mostly just live in a curious range of size, between quantum and cosmological, that gives a bit nonrepresentive ideas about the universe; it can be easily said to be full of matter.

          That's a nice way to look at it, especially when you consider that even on trans-galactic scales (ie: the emptiest of the empty), gravitational forces a

    • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

      Why is this a troll? We've already known that there are a multitude of planets, even earth sized ones. This is really non-news until 1) it is confirmed and 2) they determine whether these are earth sized or earth like.

  • maybe it *does* owe me a living.

  • Unconfirmed planets (Score:4, Informative)

    by AC-x (735297) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @08:57AM (#33043164)

    Kepler needs 3 transits to confirm a planet, so given that it's only been up there since March 7, 2009 any planet around the same distance as earth will only have had 2 transits max.

    It's exciting that there are so many candidates but I guess NASA doesn't want the embarrassment of getting everyone all excited then having to hugely backtrack on the number if some turn out to be something else.

    • Kepler needs 3 transits to confirm a planet, so given that it's only been up there since March 7, 2009 any planet around the same distance as earth will only have had 2 transits max.

      The first batch of data that had 400 candidates withheld was for 43 days only. It's quite possible this doesn't include newer data and every single one of these is really close to the star.

    • No, this is wrong. Where did you learn your orbital mechanics? There's another major factor in the orbit time of satellites: the mass of the star. The more massive the star a planet orbits, the faster its period will be for a given distance.
  • by chichilalescu (1647065) on Tuesday July 27, 2010 @09:00AM (#33043194) Homepage Journal

    It's really sad that a discussion about the possible detection of Earth-sized planets around other stars is dressed up in "it's our data and we want to publish first" and stuff like that.
    Humanity will, one day, pay dearly the fact that scientists are forced to fight for resources...

    Anyway, this is interesting news. If computers were considered "the revenge of the nerds", I'm curious what the next few years will be called.

    • by corbettw (214229)

      Well if those same scientists would get nuclear fusion and energy-matter conversion working, then we'd have unlimited resources and they wouldn't have to fight over them anymore. So really, it's their own fault for being lazy.

      • Why not become a scientist and research that if its so important to you. This is a case of the grasshopper wanting to benefit from the ants preparation for winter without helping them prepare.
    • Anyway, this is interesting news. If computers were considered "the revenge of the nerds", I'm curious what the next few years will be called.

      2011, 2012, and 2013.

      You're welcome.

    • by SirGarlon (845873)
      Publishing by press release is a great advantage in the short term, and most scientists won't be missing that lost integrity till later (if at all). These guys don't have to fight for resources -- they choose to. It's a disgrace.
    • by bonehead (6382)

      Humanity will, one day, pay dearly the fact that scientists are forced to fight for resources...

      Quite the opposite. Given that we have finite resources, the competition amongst scientific groups helps to assure, at least to some degree, that those resources are deployed in the most productive manner.

    • by whyde (123448)

      If computers were considered "the revenge of the nerds", I'm curious what the next few years will be called.

      Obviously, Revenge of the Nerds II - Nerds in Paradise.

  • By "Earth" like they mean rocky, as opposed to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn.
    In this solar system we have Venus - very similar in size to earth and made of rock. However it in no way could be described as habitable by even the toughest forms of life found here.

    Theres an article in this months SciAm,(by the same guys, referring to 'super-earths' Rocky planets twice the size of earth or more. They could have life if they were at the right distance from their star, but so far we have only been able to de

    • by sznupi (719324)

      In this solar system we have Venus - very similar in size to earth and made of rock. However it in no way could be described as habitable by even the toughest forms of life found here.

      Actually, it could - and it is on the list of potential candidates for life.

      There is a level in the atmosphere where the conditions are very Earth-like.

  • It looks like the distribution follows a power law. I'm not sure if that's an artifact of the numbers chosen but it would be cool if it were true.

  • by tekrat (242117)

    And how long before we're mining the crap out of these planets to get our un-obtainium? BTW: The one thing that bothered me most in Avatar was that, while they mentioned it takes 6-years to get to Pandora, they never mention how long it took to discover Pandora. That's a lot of Galaxy to look at.

    My prediction is that somehow, we're going to discover, within the next 20 years, something that can be confirmed as "earth-like" in that it appears to have atmosphere and water (from what we can see, being tens of

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Don't count on any multi-national rush to visit some random Earth-like planet in our relative stellar neighbourhood; most of them will be way beyond reach.

      We will start with absolutely closest stars first, really nvm if there seems to be a habitable planet or not. "And then for the next 300 years" (or so) the small unmanned probe will be en route before even getting there (and hopefully done in a way similar to this concept [wikipedia.org], even if with less advanced tech, to be somewhat capable of mass production & la

    • One would imagine that if we had figured such things out as cryostasis, interstellar transport, highly advanced cloning and mental transmission (especially that one) that we'd probably have made some advancements in astronomical observation as well. I was more bothered that with all that we couldn't get some metal out the ground without essentially using 20th century strip mining.
    • They didn't have to discover Pandora. It is in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.37 LY from Earth. This solar system is unique in that it is our closest neighbor by quite a bit, and would thus be the logical first interstellar destination.
  • I'd love to believe it, but I don't. Yes, there may be vast numbers of solar systems containing rocky planets in approximately the right orbits. But "habitable?" That's a big stretch. I suspect what we'll find is more like Niven's "Known Space" series, where the "habitable" planets out there are weird, marginal, and possibly inhabited by hostile things.

  • Tell us how many there are within 100 light years.

    Its much easier to sell the public a car/planet/boat/spaceship if there is somewhere they want to go.

    Its much easier to get the public interested in spending money on propulsion research if its gets them where they want to go FASTER.

We can predict everything, except the future.

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