The NASA Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-like planet in the “habitable zone” around a star similar to ours. The planet, called Kepler-452b, is the 1,030th planet confirmed by NASA, and is the most similar to Earth out of all of them.
Kepler-452b is approximately 60 percent bigger than Earth, and is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Cygnus. The discovery was made by astronomers while using the Kepler space telescope.
The planet orbits a star that is a similar size and temperature to ours, but older.
“On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.”
Scientists have yet to confirm its mass and composition, but say it is likely to be a rocky world. Kepler-452b is about 5 percent farther away from its parent star than Earth is from the sun, but still orbits within the habitable zone of its star. At that distance, the surface temperatures should still be suitable for liquid water.
“In my mind, this is the closest thing we have to another planet like the Earth,” astronomer Jon Jenkins, with the U.S. space agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, told reporters on a conference call. Kepler-452b orbits a star that is about 6 billion years old, where our sun is 4.6 billion year old.
“With a radius 60 percent larger than the Earth, this planet has a somewhat better than even chance of being rocky,” Jenkins said. “Kepler-452b could be about five times as massive as Earth and have gravity that is twice as strong as what exists on Earth’s surface. The planet also could have a thick atmosphere, cloudy skies, and active volcanoes.”
“It’s simply awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star,” Jenkins said. That’s considerable time and opportunity for life to arise somewhere on its surface or in its oceans should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet,” he added.
According to NASA, to help confirm the finding and better determine the properties of the Kepler-452 system, the team conducted ground-based observations at the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, and the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These measurements were key for the researchers to confirm the planetary nature of Kepler-452b, to refine the size and brightness of its host star, and to better pin down the size of the planet and its orbit.
“The detection of this planet demonstrates Kepler’s ability to fulfill its original mission goal: To detect Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars, and to measure their frequency,” Dr. Heather Knutson, assistant professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told The Huffington Post.
“This is a question of fundamental interest to exoplanetary scientists, and is closely related to the search for life beyond our own solar system.”
According to Reuters, a positioning system failure ended the telescope’s prime planet-hunting mission in 2013, but it has since been re-purposed for other astronomical observations. Attempts to learn if Kepler-452b has an atmosphere likely will have to wait for a new generation of more sensitive space telescopes, said NASA’s associate administrator John Grunsfeld. The research will be published in The Astronomical Journal.
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