I Love science, discovery, the unknown that our universe holds, so a story like this makes my toes tingle with excitement and it is just one of thousands of reasons why we should fund Nasa.
For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star, where temperatures are good for life. “If this planet has a surface, it would have a very nice temperature of some 70° Fahrenheit [21°C],” says William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center here, who is the principal investigator of NASA’s Kepler space telescope. “[It's] another milestone on the journey of discovering Earth’s twin,” adds Ames director Simon “Pete” Worden.
My husband I just shared the news with our 8-year-old daughter and some of the obvious complications of why we cannot just go check Kepler 22-B out, the newly discovered planet's name.
Unfortunately, the true nature of the planet, named Kepler-22b, remains unknown. It is 2.4 times the size of Earth, but its mass, and hence its composition, has not yet been determined. “There’s a good chance it could be rocky,” Borucki says, although he adds that the planet would probably contain huge amounts of compressed ice, too. It might even have a global ocean. “We have no planets like this in our own solar system.”
Kepler-22b is 600 light-years away. Every 290 days, it orbits a star that is just a bit smaller and cooler than our own sun. The Kepler telescope, launched in 2009 to scan the skies for Earth-like worlds, found the planet because it sees the orbit edge on. That means that every 290 days, the world transits the surface of the star, blocking out a minute fraction of its light.
I like that Borucki of Nasa called it the Christmas planet, saying it was "a great gift". And indeed it is.
"This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth's twin," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at Nasa headquarters in Washington.
"Kepler's results continue to demonstrate the importance of Nasa's science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe."
"Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at Nasa's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, who led the team that discovered Kepler 22-b. "The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season." Separately, a cosmic directory that lists the planets and moons most likely to harbour alien life was also launched by astronomers.
I think the timing is important as well, it comes on the heels of the latest climate talks in Durban that is focusing on trying to save ourselves on this planet.