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Discovery Of Earth-Like Planets On The Horizon

January 8, 2010

Astronomers believe they are on the brink of finding new planets in the universe that are much like Earth orbiting other stars.

According to the Associated Press, this will be a important factor in determining if humans are the only highly intelligent beings in the universe.

An official at NASA and other leading scientists say that they should be able to discover the first Earth-like planet within 5 years. Furthermore, they think they can find a planet close to Earth’s size within the year. They are basing their assertion on a new space telescope that is offering promising results.

The American Astronomical Society held its annual conference this week where they pointed out that “exoplanets” – planets outside our solar system – like Earth where life could develop seem to be plentiful.

The convention was abuzz with all the latest research revolving around the exoplanet field and the release of NASA’s new Kepler telescope that may be the key to finding these Earth-like entities. Scientists are thrilled to be part of this endeavor, and many seem to feel we are on the verge of answering the one question that humanity has not been able to answer since the beginning of time.

For the first time in scientific history, the age-old query “Are we alone?” has greeted scientists with optimism. Simon “Pete” Worden, an astronomer with NASA’s Ames Research Center, told AP “If I were a betting man, which I am, I would bet we’re not alone “” there is a lot of life.”

The Kepler Telescope, which is run by the Ames Research Center, is much different than the Hubble Space Telescope. Kepler is a specialized telescope built with the single purpose to hunt for planets. The key instrument is a light meter that measures the brightness of more than 100,000 stars at a time. It searches to find if anything causes a star to dim. Any stars that do dim are often due to a planet passing in front of the star.

In order to support life, a planet would most likely need to be rocky and not gaseous. The planet would also need to be at the right distance from the star. Too close and it would be too hot, too far and it would be too cold. Planets are being found at an alarming rate. In the 90s, planets were being found a few times per year. This last decade researchers were finding them on a monthly basis.

Thanks to the Kepler telescope, planets are now being found on a daily basis. There have been more than 400 planetary discoveries, however, none to date have carried the right components to support life.

Experts believe that this is about to change.

Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley told AP, “From Kepler, we have strong indications of smaller planets in large numbers, but they aren’t verified yet.”

Most of the candidates found by Kepler to date are actually turning out to be something other than planets, such as another star crossing the telescope’s point of view, according to Kepler scientist Bill Borucki.

The Kepler telescope is studying less than 1% of the night sky. The stars being studied range in distance from a few hundred to a few thousand light years away. One light year is nearly 5.9 trillion miles, so any planets that are possibly found will be too far to travel to, and they are too far away to be viewed like we can our own planets. Any planets that are found by Kepler can take up to three years to verify and confirm it’s orbital path.

It was announced this week that Kepler had found five new exoplanets within the first six weeks of operation, but all were too large and in the wrong place to be thought to sustain life or even be Earth-like.

About two-thirds of the 43,000 stars Kepler looked at that are near the same size as our sun, have appeared to have a non-violent history and be life-friendly much like our own sun. Marcy, who announced the finding of a planet only four times larger than Earth, does not like to guess how many Earth-like planets are out there, but does offer that “70 percent of all stars have rocky planets.”

Although scientists are excited about the possibility of finding Earth-like planets in the universe, there is still a chance that all the searching could turn up nothing, according to some.

Once an Earth-like planet is found and it is in the right area, determining if there is the possibility for it to be a life inhabiting planet will be an even greater problem. More costly telescopes will need to be built. They will need to be able to scan for oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, and other elements. The estimated cost for such a telescope would be in the billions.

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