Sky-scanning Kepler Finds New Planet Possibilities
Back in September 2010, astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institute of Washington announced the discovery of Gliese 581g, a planet orbiting a star 20 light years away that, if confirmed, could be the first potentially habitable planet ever discovered. The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal, and noted that the relatively quick discovery time—11 years after the search officially began—hinted that planets like Gliese 581g, and therefore like Earth, might be common.
The discovery has since come under question from the international scientific community, but an announcement from NASA yesterday refuels hopes of a peppering of quasi-Earths right in our galactic neighborhood. NASA’s Kepler mission discovered its first Earth-sized planet candidates, and its first in the habitable zone—the distance at which liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface—of their respective stars. Astronomers are calling it the most important moment in exoplanets since the momentous 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b, the first-ever exoplanet.
“In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in the announcement. “These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA’s science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos.”
Update: Gawker does an incredibly thorough scientific analysis of the many barriers to human population of the new planets. Aw, maaaan.