The universe is unfathomably large, so much so that you would think there are countless planets out there like our own, perfectly suited for supporting life. But, proof has been elusive – never before has there been confirmation of a planet other than our own in the habitable zone, the right distance that is neither too close nor too far from a sun. Until now, that is.
As you’ve maybe already learned, NASA has confirmed the presence of a planet that could be suitable for supporting life, tentatively named Kepler-22b. Kepler-22b’s sun is 600 light years away from our Earth, which isn’t so bad considering that the Milky Way Galaxy is about 120,000 light years in diameter. Of course, given that a spaceship traveling from here to there going at the speed of light would take 600 years in transit, and given that we’re nowhere near even that technology (and may never be, but never say never, right?), don’t expect to be witnessing any visits on our part while you’re alive and kicking. But, as a part of the pursuit of knowledge and finding out whether or not we are alone in the universe, it’s a massively important discovery.
Kepler 22-b was discovered by NASA’s Kepler telescope, designed for the purpose of identifying and confirming extrasolar planets with the potential to support life. Kepler 22-b is over twice the size of Earth, and has a 290-day year. It is closer to its sun than our Earth is to our sun, mitigated by the fact that Kepler-22b’s sun is smaller, dimmer, and cooler than our own. This means that Kepler-22b rests in the habitable zone of the area outside its sun – a place where the average surface temperature on the planet would be ideal for the existence of water. It’s estimated that the average temperature on Kepler-22b would be 72 degrees Fahrenheit – almost perfect.
The Kepler telescope discovers potential planets by finding stars and monitoring patterns of dimming during consistent intervals – indication that a planet is in orbit and occasionally passing between the telescope and the star. The dimming is incredibly slight and difficult to spot, a testament to the technology that has gone into the Kepler telescope. Confirmation, as was achieved by Kepler-22b, requires three years of orbits need to be measured.
So, what’s next? The big mystery now surrounding Kepler-22b is its composition. That may be gleaned from determining the planet’s mass, a task ground-based telescopes will tackle this summer, when Kepler-22b’s star is highest in the sky. The discovery also means that the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again operational, previously on hiatus due to budget constraints. The ATA basically checks to see if potential inhabitants of other worlds are as tech-friendly as we are, searching for narrow-band-pulse-amplitude-modulated radio transmissions that would indicate intelligent life using that intelligence.
The Kepler telescope isn’t done, either. NASA also announced 1,094 new potential planets outside of our Solar System, bringing the total to 2,326. Out of those, there are 10 candidate planets like Kepler-22b – roughly Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of their stars – with the potential for existence of water and, maybe, life.
So, is Kepler-22b another Earth? Will our children’s children’s children’s children’s (and a few more children’s) children be moving there someday when any number of sci-fi visions of the future comes true? We can’t say for sure yet, but for the first time, we know that there’s a decent chance the answer to those questions is yes. And don’t give up hope on finding out what’s on Kepler-22b just yet – with even the universal speed limit title of the speed of light being called into question, who knows what the future holds? That being said, if I was going to Vegas tomorrow, I wouldn’t exactly be putting money on it.