Blue planet
Kepler 22-b is a blue planet, like the Earth. Image: flowcomm/Flickr/CC BY

Monday NASA announced the discovery of the first Earth-like planet in the habitable “Goldilocks zone.” Scientists say the planet could possibly be capable of supporting life as we know it. The planet, 600 light-years away, is dubbed Kepler-22b. It was detected by the orbiting Kepler space telescope.

‘Goldilocks zone’

The so-called “Goldilocks zone,” refers to a planet’s distance from the star it orbits. If it is “not too hot and not too cold,” it could be capable of supporting liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it. Kepler 22-b is a comfortable 72 degrees.

The discovery will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institute — and part of the Kepler team — said:

“This discovery supports the growing belief that we live in a universe crowded with life.”

Similarities it Earth

Kepler 22-b is similar to Earth in many ways besides its comfortable temperature. It is blue and orbits a G5 star that has a mass and a radius only slightly smaller than that of our sun. A single orbit for Kepler 22-b takes 290 days, which is just 75 days shorter than an Earth year. However, the newly discovered world’s radius is 2.4 times that of the Earth, suggesting it might be almost entirely ocean.

“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that life could exist in such an ocean,” said Natalie Batalha, the Kepler deputy science chief.

Just last week the National Optical Astronomy Observatory announced the discovery of Kepler-21b. That planet’s radius is only 1.6 times that of the Earth. However, it orbits only 3.7 million miles from its sun, making its surface temperature a searing 2,960 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Kepler detects planets

The Kepler space telescope find planets by detecting a faint dip in the light from stars as the planet orbits past them. In order to determine that it is a planet, the dip has to be recorded three times. That means it has taken nearly three years to confirm that Kepler-22b is indeed a planet. The first pass of the planet was seen just three days after Kepler was launched in 2009.

The search for extraterrestrial life

Kepler has determined the existence of 2,326 planets since its launch, according to CNN. Steve Howell, a scientist on the Kepler team, said:

“It’s tremendously exciting. We’re moving out to orbital periods that are nearly and equal to the Earth, and that means very soon we’re going to be finding [planets] very near the earth, what we’d call true earth analogs. We’ll be there. We’ll be there probably within a year, very easily.”


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