What NASA just told the world might well change how people consider their answer when next someone asks the age-old question, “Are we alone in the Universe?”
The discovery of an “older, bigger cousin to Earth” was officially announced by the space agency at noon ET on Thursday. The NASA news release refers to the planet as Kepler-452b, the smallest such heavenly body discovered to date orbiting a far-away star much like our sun. And what’s particularly exciting, according to an agency spokesman, is the belief that liquid water could be present and pool on this planet.
NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star.
Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger in diameter than Earth and is considered a super-Earth-size planet. While its mass and composition are not yet determined, previous research suggests that planets the size of Kepler-452b have a good chance of being rocky.
The NASA announcement about what could certainly be called an “earth-shattering discovery” notes that Kepler-452b is in a distant solar system in the constellation Cygnus. Barring a different discovery — how man could travel incredible distances across space and live to tell about it — no one from old Earth will be visiting new Earth any time soon, as this planet is some 1,400 light-years away.
Still, thanks to the wonders of today’s technology, NASA researchers can tell us a lot about our distant cousin: “While Kepler-452b is larger than Earth, its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer. The planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger.”
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While news of the identification of this intriguing planet that could be a virtual twin to our own watery world is certainly significant, NASA points out that its Kepler space telescope has “captured evidence of other potentially habitable worlds.” And of course, by “habitable,” the space agency means a planet on which humans or human-like beings could exist.
About a dozen habitable zone planets in the Earth-size ballpark have been discovered so far — that is, 10 to 15 planets between one-half and twice the diameter of Earth, depending on how the habitable zone is defined and allowing for uncertainties about some of the planetary sizes.
As for the exploration of our vast Universe enabled by the space observatory named for the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, the mission continues. Launched on March 7, 2009, the Kepler space telescope began its search for other Earth-like planets in mid-May of that year; and there’s no indication the search will cease, as long as the space observatory functions.