NASA Announces the Discovery of Potentially Habitable, Earth-Sized Planet
Artistic concept of Kepler186-f. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech
By: Haylee Fisher
NASA has revealed the discovery of an Earth-sized planet that could possibly have the potential to sustain life. It was found using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and as such, the planet has been dubbed Kepler-186f.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, astronomers discovered the planet in what they call the “habitable zone” – the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. In a press release on their website, they said while other planets have previously been found in this zone, “they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth, and understanding their makeup is challenging.” Because Kepler-186f is similar to Earth – in fact, it is only about 10% larger – it will be easier to study.
After spotting it, researchers wasted no time in searching for emissions that could suggest extraterrestrial life. So far, no emissions have been found. Previous research indicates a planet the size of Kepler-186f would have a rocky surface that would be comprised of iron, rock, and ice. However, what is most dependent on hospitability would be its atmosphere’s emissions.
The planet resides in a larger solar system about 500 light years away from Earth, currently called Kepler 186, in the constellation Cygnus. The system is home to five planets that orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The outermost planet in that system is Kepler-186f.
NASA JPL’s website said the star “is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”
“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at NASA. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”
Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130 days and receives one-third the energy from it as the Earth gets from the Sun, placing it near the outer edge of the habitable zone. It is also darker than Earth, since at high noon it is only about as bright as the Earth about an hour before sunset. The other four planets in the system – Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d, and Kepler-186e – rotate every four, seven, 13, and 22 days respectively, making them too hot to sustain life as we know it. These planets all measure less than 1.5 times the size of Earth.
The next step in the search for other life will include looking for Earth-twins – Earth-sized planets orbiting within the habitable zone of a sun-like star – and studying their chemical composition. The Kepler Space Telescope is NASA’s first mission capable of detecting these potential planets.