Spied by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, Kepler-22b marks the best candidate yet for a life-bearing world beyond our solar system, project scientists said Monday.
If it has a surface, it ought to have a nice temperature,” said Kepler’s lead scientist, Bill Borucki, during a teleconference Monday.
“It’s right in the middle of the habitable zone,” said Natalie Batahla, a Kepler scientist, referring to the narrow, balmy band of space around any star where water can be liquid. “The other exciting thing is that it orbits a star very, very similar to our own sun.”
The actual temperature on Kepler-22b hinges on whether the planet has an atmosphere, which, like a blanket, would warm the surface. Even without an atmosphere, Borucki said, the planet would likely be warm enough to host liquid water on its surface.
If it has a surface.
Kepler 22b is in what scientists call the Goldilocks zone, which is the band of distance away from a star which could allow for liquid water. As AP explained:
The new planet — named Kepler-22b — has key aspects it shares with Earth. It circles a star that could be the twin of our sun and at just about the same distance. The planet’s year of 290 days is even close to ours. It likely has water and rock.
The only trouble is the planet’s a bit big for life to exist on the surface. The planet is about 2.4 times the size of Earth. It could be more like the gas-and-liquid Neptune with only a rocky core and mostly ocean.
“It’s so exciting to imagine the possibilities,” said Natalie Batalha, the Kepler deputy science chief.
Floating on that “world completely covered in water” could be like being on an Earth ocean and “it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that life could exist in such an ocean,” Batalha said in a phone interview.
Kepler can’t find life itself, just where the conditions might be right for it to thrive. And when astronomers look for life elsewhere they’re talking about everything ranging from microbes to advanced intelligence that can be looking back at us.
So far the Kepler telescope has spotted 2,326 candidate planets outside our solar system with 139 of them potentially habitable ones. Even though the confirmed Kepler-22b is a bit big, it is still smaller than most of the other candidates. It is closest to Earth in size, temperature and star than either of the two previously announced planets in the zone.
Excitement over the possible discovery of another planet that could support life prompted satire writer Alexandra Petri what other wonders await us on Kepler 22b:
Two astronomers are staring into a telescope, aimed 600 lightyears away.
“A new planet!” they exclaim. “Blue. Tranquil. Liquid water. Habitable, according to our instruments.”
“And it’ll only take us 22 million years to reach it,” one of them adds.
”Maybe it’s inhabited already,” the first astronomer observes. “The conditions seem proper. On average, the temperature of a beautiful early summer day.”
They sigh. “Maybe things are saner there,” one says. “Maybe they have figured out how to keep a large area of the planetary surface with variegated traditions, languages, and national habits under a single currency.”
“Maybe,” the first one says. “Maybe their presidential primary process is less embarrassing, not overloaded with people named after small reptiles and cooking appliances, and they are not planning a debate hosted by an entertainment mogul who resembles a loaf of bread with some fungus on it.”
“Maybe.” The second astronomer sighs again. “Maybe the aliens on that planet don’t have to spend all their time on social media pretending things are going well and tending imaginary farms.”
“Maybe, over there, blankets with sleeves that let you change the channel without the tiny amount of movement required to pull your limbs out from under the blanket are not a major sector of the economy.”
“Maybe they don’t have that mad rush for holiday sales that results in people being trampled and pepper-sprayed.”
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