Space
2:39 pm
Thu April 18, 2013

Kepler Telescope Spots 3 New Planets In The 'Goldilocks Zone'

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 9:26 pm

Astronomers have found three planets orbiting far-off stars that are close to Earth-sized and in the "habitable zone": a distance from their suns that makes the planets' surfaces neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

One of the three planets orbits a star with the prosaic name Kepler-69.

"Kepler-69 is a sun-like star," says Thomas Barclay, a research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute who uses the Kepler space telescope, which is on a mission to search for Earth-like planets. It finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the light coming from a star. The dips come when a planet passes in front of a star. By measuring the interval between dips, astronomers can figure out how long it takes a planet to orbit its star.

The planet around Kepler-69 is "around 70 percent bigger than Earth, so what we call super-Earth-sized," says Barclay. "This represents the first super-Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a star like our sun."

Twenty five years ago, if you had asked astronomers if there were planets around other stars, they'd probably say maybe, but they'd admit they were just speculating.

Boy, have times changed. In the past two decades, using some innovative measurement techniques, astronomers have confirmed the existence of lots of planets — 697, in fact — according to the Exoplanet Orbit Database.

"Back in the good old days, you'd find one or two crappy, Jupiter-like planets, and you'd be on the cover of Time magazine. But those days are long gone," says Paul Butler, a planet hunter at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Most new planets barely elicit a yawn these days.

The Kepler mission is partly to blame for that. The spacecraft, which launched in 2009, has been wildly successful, having found more than 100 planets, most of which have been the nasty Jupiter-sized planets Butler talks about. But the three planets being announced today are different.

In addition to the one orbiting Kepler-69, there are two around Kepler-62 that are even closer to Earth-sized. Kepler-62 is a dimmer star than Kepler-69, so the planets' orbits must be closer to the star to keep them in the habitable zone. The planets around Kepler-62 are described in the online edition of the journal Science.

William Borucki, an astronomer with the NASA Ames Research Center and the principal investigator for Kepler, says the mission's goal is to find how many Earth twins are out there.

"If they're frequent, then there may be lots of life throughout the galaxy," says Borucki. "They may just be waiting for us to call and say, 'Hello, we'd like to join the club.' Or if we don't find any, the answer may be just the opposite. Maybe we're alone, there isn't anybody out there; there will never be a Star Trek because there's no place to go to."

And that's a sobering thought.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If there's another planet in the universe exactly like Earth astronomers are most likely to find it in a patch of sky near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. That's where NASA's planet-finding mission called Kepler is sifting through a field of about 100,000 stars, searching for a twin of Earth. Today, Kepler scientists reported on the three closest candidates so far. NPR's Joe Palca has that story.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: 25 years ago, if you asked astronomers if there were planets around stars other than our sun, they'd probably say well, maybe, but they'd admit they were just speculating. Boy, have times changed. In the last two decades, using some innovative measurement techniques, astronomers have confirmed the existence of lots of these so-called exoplanets - 697 according to the Exoplanet Orbit Database.

PAUL BUTLER: Back in the good old days, you'd find one or two crappy, you know, Jupiter-like planets and you'd be on the cover of Time Magazine, but those days are long gone.

PALCA: Paul Butler is a planet-hunter at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington.

BUTLER: Most planets barely elicit a yawn these days.

PALCA: The Kepler mission is partly to blame for that. The spacecraft launched in 2009. It finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the light coming from a particular star. The dips come when a planet passes in front of that star. By measuring the interval between dips, astronomers can figure out how long it takes a planet to orbit its star. Kepler has been wildly successful; it's found more than 100 planets, but most of those have been those giant, gassy Jupiter-sized planets Butler was talking about. The three new planets being announced today are different.

BUTLER: Yeah, I think this is worth reporting.

PALCA: So here goes. One of the Earth-like planets orbits a star with the prosaic name Kepler-69.

THOMAS BARKLEY: Kepler-69 is a sun-like star.

PALCA: Thomas Barkley is one of the astronomers using Kepler. He says the outermost of the two planets found orbiting Kepler-69 is quite interesting.

BARKLEY: Around 70 percent bigger than Earth, so what we call supera-sized(ph), and it is in the habitable zone of its star.

PALCA: By habitable zone, Barkley means the planet's orbit is not so close to the sun that its surface would scorch and not so far that everything would freeze solid. In other words, just right.

BARKLEY: This represents the first supera-sized planet in the habitable zone of a star like our sun.

PALCA: The two other planets being announced today and being described online in the journal Science are also somewhat bigger than Earth, but they orbit a star somewhat dimmer than our sun. NASA Ames astronomer William Borucki is the principal investigator for Kepler. He says the mission's goal is to find out how many Earth twins are out there.

WILLIAM BORUCKI: If they're frequent, then there may be lots of life throughout the galaxy. They may just be waiting for us to call and say, hello, we'd like to join the club. Or, if we don't find any, the answer may be just the opposite. Maybe we're alone. There isn't anybody out there. There will never be a "Star Trek" because there's no place to go to.

PALCA: Now there's a sobering thought. Joe Palca, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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