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NASA Discovers Two New Planetary Systems with Earth-like Planets

If you’re looking for life on other worlds, a good place to start would be finding planets that are similar to Earth.  Earth’s orbit around our star, the Sun, keeps us within a “habitable zone” that allows water to stay liquid, a key life ingredient.  

If our orbit were too close, Earth would be too hot and water would boil away. If our orbit was too far from the sun, our water would freeze.  

Earth is also just the right size.  If a planet is too big, it’s likely become a gaseous giant like Jupiter.  If it’s too small, it wouldn’t have the gravity necessary to hold an atmosphere close to it.  An atmosphere is necessary to trap some of the heat we get from our just-the-right-distance-away star.  

These are some of the factors that astronomers use when when scouring the universe for habitable planets.  Unfortunately, the distances to other solar systems from Earth makes finding just-right “Goldilocks” planets like these a real challenge.  In addition, little planets are much harder than big, bright stars to see in the darkness of space.

Recently, NASA scientists have used the Kepler spacecraft, a special telescope in orbit around the Sun, to discover habitable zone planets that are similar in size to Earth in two different solar systems.  A few other habitable zone planets have been found before, but these are the smallest yet.  Scientists don’t know if these planets are actually capable of supporting life, but these discoveries are a step towards identifying actual Earth-like planets.

Kepler discovers planets in other solar systems by pointing at one area in space for a long time and measuring the brightness of stars.  Kepler watches to see if the stars temporarily dim, which is a sign that a planet is passing in front of the stars and blocking some of the light.  Using a calculation that includes how much the starlight dimmed and how long it dimmed for, scientists are able to determine the mass of the planet and the size of its orbit.

Read more about NASA’s Kepler discoveries and learn about how Kepler searches for habitable planets.

 

Image description: A map of the planet Jupiter’s south pole, constructed from 36 images by NASA’s spacecraft Cassini while on its way to Saturn. The map, the most detailed to date, includes Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a massive hurricane-like storm wider than three Earths that has been raging at least as long as the 400 years that humans have been observing the planet. Currently, the Juno spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter to unlock more of the giant’s secrets.
Learn more from the Juno mission website.

Image description: A map of the planet Jupiter’s south pole, constructed from 36 images by NASA’s spacecraft Cassini while on its way to Saturn. The map, the most detailed to date, includes Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a massive hurricane-like storm wider than three Earths that has been raging at least as long as the 400 years that humans have been observing the planet. Currently, the Juno spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter to unlock more of the giant’s secrets.

Learn more from the Juno mission website.

Image description: This artist’s concept depicts an itsy bitsy planetary system — so compact, in fact, that it’s more like Jupiter and its moons than a star and its planets. Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission and ground-based telescopes recently confirmed that the system, called KOI-961, hosts the three smallest exoplanets known so far to orbit a star other than our sun. An exoplanet is a planet that resides outside of our solar system. Learn more about these exoplanets.
Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image description: This artist’s concept depicts an itsy bitsy planetary system — so compact, in fact, that it’s more like Jupiter and its moons than a star and its planets. Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission and ground-based telescopes recently confirmed that the system, called KOI-961, hosts the three smallest exoplanets known so far to orbit a star other than our sun. An exoplanet is a planet that resides outside of our solar system. Learn more about these exoplanets.

Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Kepler Mission Discovers New Habitable Planet

NASA’s Kepler Mission announced the discovery of a newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b. Kepler-22b is located 600 light years away, and is 2.4 times the radius of Earth. It orbits a star similar to our sun, and is the smallest found to orbit in the middle of a habitable zone. Though the planet is larger than Earth, its orbit is only 290 days. Scientists have yet to find out Kepler-22b’s composition, whether it is rocky, gaseous or liquid.

Of the 54 habitable planet candidates reported in February 2011, Kepler-22b is the first to be confirmed. The discovery of Kepler-22b brings NASA one step closer to finding Earth-like planets. The planet’s host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters.

Learn more about Kepler-22b.