Guys, the universe, it turns out, is very large. It’s almost like it’s always expanding. Even in our own galaxy, the chocolaty Milky Way, we’re finding new and interesting things. Just recently, the Kepler Telescope discovered a whole slew of new planets, 715 to be precise, and one of them is as close to being like Earth as any planet we’ve ever seen.
Don’t start expecting to see other versions of yourself or anything (referencing Earth 2, of course); all we know so far is that this planet is roughly the size of Earth (though a little bigger) and may – MAY – have liquid water on it. Probably, even.
According to NASA (in a report by BBC News), Kepler 186f as it’s boringly called is part of a 5-planet cluster deep in the Milky Way that orbits a temperature-cool dwarf star (as opposed to a sunglasses-wearing one). “This is the smallest planet we’ve found so far in the habitable zone,” said Prof. Stephen Kane, an astrophysicist from San Francisco State University, US.
Kepler 186f is roughly 500 light-years away from Earth. For the lay person, a light-year is the distance light can travel in an Earth year. Light, you may remember, is the fastest thing, so it can travel roughly 6 trillion miles in a year. Ergo, old Kepler 186f is about 3 quadrillion miles away. Really damn far, is what I’m saying.
Because of the size of the planet, which is about 10% larger than Earth, the researchers believe it to be rocky in surface. Prof. Kane told the BBC’s Rebecca Morelle, “There seems to be a transition that occurs at about 1.5 times the Earth’s radius, such that if the planet is larger, then it starts to develop a very substantial atmosphere very similar to what we see in the gas giant planets in our own Solar System.
“And so anything less than 1.5 is probably more like a rocky planet that we are familiar with.”
Kepler 186f is the furthest planet orbiting that particular star and has a year of about 130 days. The star this group of planets orbits is much smaller and cooler, and also less stable, than our own Sun, but the researchers believe, due to Kepler 186f’s distance and orbit around that star, it wouldn’t get hot enough to boil liquid water on the surface nor far enough away for it to be frozen throughout. Of course, anybody who somehow made it there would be bombarded with huge amounts of radiation, but just wear your sunscreen. SPF 60,000.
Prof. Kane told the BBC, “Even though it is orbiting a star which is very different from our Sun, the planet itself – both in terms of size and the amount of energy it is receiving from its star – is the most similar planet to our Earth that we’ve yet discovered.
“That is great news in terms of looking for planets which might actually be similar to the Earth, especially as the kind of star it does orbit – which is a very small star – are amongst the most common in the galaxy.
“And if all of these very common small stars have lots of terrestrial-sized planets in the habitable zone, then that is very good news.”
We’ve been searching for planets outside our Solar System as long as we’ve been sending probes and things. We discovered the first one 20 years ago and have since discovered nearly 2,000, thanks in no small part to the Kepler Telescope.
Maybe one day, we’ll be able to get a vessel that can travel that distance in a time less than time Earth has existed. Still, very cool to know our weird marble isn’t entirely isolated.