NASA's Kepler Mission has discovered the first super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of a star similar to the Sun. A team of researchers, including Carnegie's Alan Boss, has discovered what could be a large, rocky planet with a surface temperature of about 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit), comparable to a comfortable spring day on Earth.
This landmark finding will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.
The discovery team, led by William Borucki of the NASA Ames Research Center, used photometric data from the NASA Kepler space telescope, which monitors the brightness of 155,000 stars. Earth-size planets whose orbital planes are aligned such that they periodically pass in front of their stars result in tiny dimmings of their host star's light--dimmings that can only be measured by a highly specialized space telescope like Kepler.
This discovery is the first detection of a possibly habitable world in orbit around a Sun-like star.
The host star lies about 600 light-years away from us toward the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus. The star, a G5 star, has a mass and a radius only slightly smaller than that of our Sun, a G2 star. As a result, the host star is about 25% less luminous than the Sun. The planet orbits the G5 star with an orbital period of 290 days, compared to 365 days for Earth, at a distance about 15% closer to its star than Earth from the Sun. This results in the planet's balmy temperature. It orbits in the middle of the star's habitable zone, where liquid water is expected to be able to exist on the surface of the planet. Liquid water is necessary for life as we know it, and this new planet might well be not only habitable, perhaps even inhabited.
Numerous large, massive gas giant planets have been detected previously in habitable-zone orbits around solar-type stars, but gas giants are not thought to be capable of supporting life. This new exoplanet is the smallest-radius planet discovered in the habitable zone of any star to date. It is about 2.4 times larger than that of Earth, putting it in the class of exoplanets known as super-Earths.
While the mass of this new planet is not known, it must be less than about 36 times that of Earth, based on the absence of a measurable Doppler (radial velocity) wobble in the host star. The masses of several other super-Earths have been measured with the Doppler technique and determined to lie in the range of about 5 to 10 times that of Earth: Some appear to be rocky, while others probably contain major fractions of ice and water. Either way, the new planet appears to be habitable.
"This discovery supports the growing belief that we live in a universe crowded with life," Boss said. "Kepler is on the verge of determining the actual abundance of habitable, Earth-like planets in our galaxy."
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