Tuesday, December 6, 2011

There's no place like... wait a second

It was only a matter of time. Scientists say they have found what might be a true "Goldilocks planet," perfectly positioned around a star so that it's the right temperature for liquid water. It's also sized appropriately for human use--approximately 2.4 times the size of Earth, but there's no telling at this point how dense it is. Nor do we know, at this point, what the composition of its atmosphere is.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don't yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

Previous research hinted at the existence of near-Earth-size planets in habitable zones, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Two other small planets orbiting stars smaller and cooler than our sun recently were confirmed on the very edges of the habitable zone, with orbits more closely resembling those of Venus and Mars.

"This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth's twin," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Kepler's results continue to demonstrate the importance of NASA's science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe."

Keep in mind, this is 600 light years away. That means if there IS anyone on that planet, and they happen to be looking in our directions, they won't pick up any, say, radio signals for another 500 years.

But it's a start. And an intriguing one at that. There are likely to be many, many planets like this, and if we look at enough of them, we might end up with a Sparrow moment.

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