Well, to put it out there, NASA scientists discovered 219 new objects beyond our solar system, most likely to be planets. The biggest part of the discovery is that out of those 219 objects, 10 of those might be Earth-sized rocky habitable planets. These 10 new Earth-like candidates add to Kepler’s previous discoveries, making a grand total of 49.
Running from March 2009 to May 2013, NASA’s Kepler exoplanet-hunting mission found this data by looking at almost 145,000 Sun-like stars in one tiny section of the night sky near the Cygnus constellation. The sad news is that most of these stars are 100-1000 light-years away, so there’s a minuscule chance for humans to visit there anytime soon. The data though tells the commonalities of Earthlike planets and the possibilities of finding intelligent alien life.
A Kepler research scientist Susan Thompson at SETI Institute said that they’re going to determine if there are other places in the galaxy that humans can possibly live in and if a planet has a stable atmosphere, there’s also a chance it harbours alien life. Scientists didn’t talk too much about the new planets except that they are roughly Earth-sized and in the “habitable zone”, meaning water might be stable and liquid. But this doesn’t guarantee they’re habitable due to a lack of knowledge on the existence of requirements for life to thrive.
But researchers suspect countless other Earthlike planets that have still not been discovered by the Kepler. The telescope can only see exoplanets that pass in front of their stars through the transit method, which involves finding dips in a star’s brightness when the planet blocks a fraction of the starlight. Kepler can only see a tiny section of distant solar systems and slightly angled objects are invisible in the current method because most planets orbit in same disk or plane, which are seldom aligned with Earth.
However, despite these difficulties, Kepler has found 4,034 planet candidates, comprising of 2,335 exoplanets, numbers found in only 0.25% of the night sky. Mario Perez, a NASA program scientist, said, “You’d need 400 Keplers to cover the whole sky.” The sizes of these planets range from Earth’s to our solar system’s gas giants and they’re most likely the largest in number in the universe. The rocky “Super-Earth” planets, some 10 times bigger than our planet, are also common. Scientists said the most interesting discovery in the findings is the KY 7711, with a similar location and orbit as Earth’s path around the Sun, receives the same amount of heat and is 1.3 times larger than our Earth.
Since 2009, Kepler’s singular mission is finding planets orbiting other stars to discover find alien worlds similar to Earth but astronomers didn’t expect to identify 50 Earth-like exoplanets this fast. The mission significantly contributed to the search for these potentially habitable planets and provided the first images of arguably the most distinguished exoplanet system called TRAPPIST-1.
The search will continue, marking the beginning of a new era in this type of research with missions such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), both of which will delve into exoplanets in ways Kepler couldn’t by attempting to identify new information about composition and habitability. So we can expect bigger discoveries in the future, maybe answering the Susan Thompson’s question “Are there places we could live in this galaxy besides what we call home?”