By: Kamala Kelkar
Maybe we can stop recycling — NASA scientists yesterday declared the discovery of a new alien world that is remarkably similar to Earth.
The planet has a surface which hovers around a balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit and it rotates around a star similar to our sun, within what scientists call a “Goldilocks” or habitable zone.
That means the planet won’t be too hot or too cold — it’ll just stay at a moderate temperature, like that proverbial bowl of porridge.
The downside: Kepler-22b is 600 light years — about 3.5 quadrillion miles — away and orbits every 290 days around a ball of gas slightly smaller and cooler than ours.
So while it probably won’t be a galactic vacation spot any time soon, it’s got plenty of room for visitors. The planet is about 2.4 times bigger than Earth. But scientists have said that its dimensions might mean Kepler-22b is more like our neighbor Neptune, with a rocky core and a mostly oceanic façade.
“I would bet my telescope that there is no hard, rocky surface to walk on,” Geoff Marcy, who is on NASA’s Kepler team that finds Earth doppelgangers, told the Associated Press.
But it is the smallest planet NASA has ever established orbiting in the middle of a habitable zone around a star similar to our central energy source — and thus the best hope yet. And the composition does not rule out intelligent life living on or in the potentially global ocean
“This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Named for 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler, NASA’s Kepler space telescope launched in March 2009 with the mission to discover Earth-like planets in the vast cosmos.
Since then, NASA astronomers have discovered 2,326 planet candidates, with 48 of them having potential to be another Earth.
Astronomers find them through the $600 million space telescope that monitors small changes in a star’s brightness and sends information back to Earth. If the glare diminishes at all, the astronomers know to look for a planet passing in front of it or “transiting” it.
Then candidate alien worlds graduate to real planets after follow-up monitoring from the ground.
Kepler-22b was observed three times to authenticate its existence, and astronomers witnessed the third transit during the 2010 holiday season.