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NASA Finds Family of Habitable Planets 184

Posted by samzenpus
from the welcome-to-the-neighborhood dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA's star-gazing space telescope continues to find amazing proof that there are tons of habitable planets in space and we have only scratched the surface of what's out there. The space agency said today its Kepler space telescope spotted what it called its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in what it considers to be the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system."
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NASA Finds Family of Habitable Planets

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  • ...how many are there then?
  • by 2muchcoffeeman (573484) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @07:26PM (#35085458) Journal

    Can we call them "potentially habitable planets" instead of going all the way to "habitable" that quickly? I think I'd like to make sure of certain things before being so definite -- for instance: water, temperature, oxygen levels, lack of poisonous gases making the oxygen-level issue moot, edible flora and/or fauna, radiation levels ... hmmm, could be here awhile ...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Right... because if they had edible flora... oh wait! *face palm*

    • by ulzeraj (1009869)
      Agreed. Venus is an Earth-sized planet in a relatively good distance from its parent star. It doesn't have a decent magnetic shield to deflect radiation from its parent star and its atmosphere is a greenhouse hell.
      • by vadim_t (324782)

        Venus, with its temperature above 400ÂC fails the "liquid water could exist on a planet's surface" requirement.

        • by sznupi (719324) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @07:44PM (#35085606) Homepage
          It is borderline good as far as its orbit is concerned (indeed, maybe it even had oceans of water few billion years ago, perhaps even some biosphere). And for some time, we'll know only the orbits of Kepler planets / that's why some of them are considered to be in the habitable zone.
        • character encoding fail

        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          It's only that hot -- hotter than the surface of Mercury -- because of its atmosphere.

    • by Rinnon (1474161) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @07:29PM (#35085492)

      Can we call them "potentially habitable planets" instead of going all the way to "habitable" that quickly? I think I'd like to make sure of certain things before being so definite -- for instance: water, temperature, oxygen levels, lack of poisonous gases making the oxygen-level issue moot, edible flora and/or fauna, radiation levels ... hmmm, could be here awhile ...

      I don't see how that would help Nasa get more funding.

    • by Walzmyn (913748)

      Thank you. All they've found is a certain wobble in light from a distant star. They have inferred lots and lots but *know* practically nothing about these planets. I'm getting really tired of all different branches of science saying with exact certitude what they can only guess at.

      • by sznupi (719324)
        I am getting really used (what? They are old news, here since who-knows-when, and won't be gone before by death) to people belittling all scientific achievements because some of them run counter to their "opinions"...
        • It's amusing seeing people do this. Somehow they think their opinion is more informed than someone who has dedicated a life to astronomy and the science behind it.

          Maybe they should meet some astronomers and give their opinions... then they will learn why their opinions are incorrect and ill-informed.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by BenSchuarmer (922752)

        Actually, these planets were discovered because they transit between their star and us (not by the star wobbling).

        I would be surprised if they were habitable, given that they're all less that .5 AU from their star (which is 95% as big as the sun). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler-11 [wikipedia.org]

        • And since they transit between us and the star they can see changes in the spectroscopy of the star, and by extension what kind of atmosphere, etc, those planets have.

      • by ravenspear (756059) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:38PM (#35086014)

        It's not that hard to understand.

        If you can observe a planet with a few different methods, you can reliably calculate it's mass and radius from the size it appears, it's orbital period and inclination, the effect it exerts on the star, and other data points.

        Once you have the mass and radius, you can calculate the density, which allows you to speculate on whether it is rocky or gaseous. This in turn opens up other informed analyses of the conditions that might be present given it's distance to the star and other factors.

        It's atmospheric composition can also be determined with spectroscopy.

        If you really think astronomers are just guessing, you couldn't be more wrong. It's true that there is a lot that we don't know about these planets, but what we do is built on a solid mathematical foundation.

        • by Walzmyn (913748)

          I understand the difference between a WAG (wild assed guess) and a scientific hypothesis. But you used the word speculate yourself. At the very least this could have been couched with a "might" or a "maybe". I didn't read TFA, maybe they did and it wasn't in the synopsis. I just get bothered when there is a report of exact certitude when there could be multiple explanations for what they have observed.
          Another example, the people telling us the world's weather is going to be a specific number of degrees hott

          • by bertok (226922) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:37AM (#35087712)

            Another example, the people telling us the world's weather is going to be a specific number of degrees hotter or colder in a decade. They can't even accuratly predict a week out.

            Your ignorance of the scientific process doesn't invalidate it.

            The example you mentioned is a straw man argument based on ignorance. There's a huge difference between climate and weather prediction. The former is like trying to predict the temperature at which a pot of water will boil, the latter is like predicting the location on the surface of the water where the steam bubbles will appear. One of those is predictable and depends on simple thermodynamics that is well understood, the other is full of randomness and uncertainty, and is difficult to predict far into the future.

            Either way, none of that has anything to do with astronomy, which is about as precise, non-random, and rigorous as any science gets. The measurements these guys are making are just simple intensity measurements over time. There's no need to develop hugely complex models with trillions of unknowns and interacting nonlinear feedbacks and systems that require supercomputers to solve to a useful level of precision. The equations astronomers work with can be solved on the back of a napkin.

            To give you an idea of the kind of precision that astronomers are used to working with, the Gaia Mission [wikipedia.org] will create a star catalogue with position measurements as accurate as 20 microarcseconds. If you think of that as a fraction of a circle, that is 15 parts per trillion! The Kepler spacecraft has a rather pedestrian precision of only 20 parts per million, which is still orders of magnitude better than what any climatologist has ever had to work with.

            On top of that, this mission is not making a prediction about the future, but making a straightforward measurement that can be trivially verified later. There's no uncertainty to speak of.

          • Another example, the people telling us the world's weather is going to be a specific number of degrees hotter or colder in a decade. They can't even accuratly predict a week out.

            Believe it or not, predicting the tomorrow weather is much much more complicated than predicting the climate in 10 years. It is like sitting on a hill and rolling a ball down. You wont know exactly where it stops. But you know FOR CERTAIN that it will be lower than the top of the hill.

            No matter how accurately we can observe an exopl

            • by delt0r (999393)

              Believe it or not, predicting the tomorrow weather is much much more complicated than predicting the climate in 10 years.

              This is in fact not true. Yes predicting weather and predicting climate is *different* but thats not the same as easier, and is most definitely *not* easier. In fact many climate models do model weather in about 20min intervals IIRC generally on a coarser grid with simpler local models to ease the computational burden. Even the idea of ensemble averages is used in both fields, and typically anyone who studies weather also has studied climate and visa versa to some extent ( often even wider geosciences in ge

          • by mangu (126918)

            At the very least this could have been couched with a "might" or a "maybe"

            Blame the journalist who wrote the article, not the scientist. Scientific papers always give the exact range of confidence one can have on its conclusions and usually the raw data is available so you can draw your own conclusions.

            No matter how accurately we can observe an exoplanet from Earth, at this distance, most of that interpreted data is not much better than a guess.

            More accurate observations are no better than inaccurate observations, is that what you mean? Do you think that if the distance is big enough then there's absolutely no way you can improve the accuracy of your observations? That notion has been disproved long ago [cnx.org].

            I've got some news

            • by delt0r (999393)

              Scientific papers always give the exact range of confidence one can have on its conclusions.

              No they don't. Read them yourself if you don't believe me.

    • by Noren (605012) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:05PM (#35085770)
      It's not NASA's fault, the actual press release says nothing of the sort.

      The NASA press release [nasa.gov] described a system of at least 6 larger -than-earth planets, all much closer to their sun than Earth is. Late in the release, they mention that "Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet. "

      Then Michael Cooney appears to have invented from whole cloth the title, "NASA Kepler finds family of habitable, Earth-size planets". I do have to admit that the Slashdot title is pretty close to the Cooney source, but the article is... not even close to what it claims to be its source material.
      • Actually, to that point, I think Michael Cooney is the submitter, as the first two paragraphs is the exact same as the summary.
      • by syousef (465911)

        It's not NASA's fault, the actual press release says nothing of the sort.

        They should have linked to the press release not some blog by some Network guy. For the job he did on this one might speculate blogger Michael Cooney might be sent to a less habitable planet by civilisations less forgiving than ours.

      • It would appear that the article linked to in TFS is actually a mashup of the press release you linked to and this one [nasa.gov]. Most of the numbers quoted in the article from TFS can be found in the press release at that link,
    • by ThePeices (635180)

      No, the definition of "habitable zone" is the zone around a star where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet. Thats it.

      What we know from life on Earth is that liquid water was/is absolutely essential to the development of life as we know it. If life can arise here, it can arise elsewhere. You just need the right conditions and elements/chemicals.

    • Can we call them "potentially habitable planets" instead of going all the way to "habitable" that quickly? I think I'd like to make sure of certain things before being so definite -- for instance: water, temperature, oxygen levels, lack of poisonous gases making the oxygen-level issue moot, edible flora and/or fauna, radiation levels ... hmmm, could be here awhile ...

      You aren't wrong, but with the exception of a Mars-style magnetic field failure causing no atmosphere, the following are true:

      1. - If the planet is in the goldilocks zone of it's star and the size is approximately right it should be able to hold an atmosphere at a reasonable pressure.
      2. - If the planet can hold an atmosphere of a reasonable pressure, water will be stable.
      3. - Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the known universe, so assuming there is oxygen present (even in the form of oxides) we can make wat
    • by blair1q (305137)

      How about "within a nominal range on at least one attribute necessary for habitability of life of the sort we theorize we are".

      Sometimes you have to wonder if before the Internet there was a broadsheet version of /. sold on streetcorners by dirty-faced, loud-voiced kids in plus-fours, suspenders, and snap-brim caps.

      But no, couldn't be. It would have been tabloid...

      • by rubycodez (864176)
        actually, other elements for life are implied by the very existence of a *rocky* planet in the "habitable zone". did you know carbon, nitrogen, iron, phosphorous MUST be there also? It has to do with the nature of the ash of stars.
    • What we consider habitable on Earth doesn't mean it's necessary on another planet. You could possibly find life that breathes Methane or swims in sulfuric acid out there.
    • by JavaBear (9872)

      Did anyone say anything about the planets being HUMAN habitable?

    • They are most certainly habitable. There is no doubt. The only questions is if humans could inhabit them. The title is correct.
    • by Lanteran (1883836)
      Thank you. To some scientist looking up from another star, venus and mars could very well appear to be habitable.
    • by arisvega (1414195)

      Can we call them "potentially habitable planets" instead of going all the way to "habitable" that quickly?

      No. The IAU [wikipedia.org] can get cranky with designations.But even so, the original NASA announcement claims nothing of the sort- it is the attention-craving journalist that came up with his own interpretation of the announcement, and coined the title of TFA this way to hype it and get your attention.

      Like that other time the paper had a sentence on its end mentioning something along the lines of "The possibility of biological origin [for methane observed in the Martian atmosphere] cannot be excluded" and the next day th

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      Can we call them "potentially habitable planets" instead of going all the way to "habitable" that quickly?

      Because, if we think they are habitable, we can safely continue to abuse the Earth?

  • by emurphy42 (631808) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @07:33PM (#35085524) Homepage
    Map [fireflyshipworks.com]
  • by AbsoluteXyro (1048620) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @07:55PM (#35085700)
    Stupid media hype. In that very same article it is stated that it would take 3 years -at minimum- to verify the existence of an Earth-size exoplanet. So clearly there aren't five of them on the books yet. Kepler went up in March 2009.
    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth- sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter, NASA stated.

      They've found 5 earth sized planet candidates in what they believe to be the habitable zone. That's pretty exciting to me whether they're confirmed or not.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What it takes three years to find is a planet orbiting a star once a year, ie: in an earth-like orbit. They've found a bunch of earth-sized planets orbiting much closer than that.

    • In that very same article it is stated that it would take 3 years -at minimum- to verify the existence of an Earth-size exoplanet.

      Learn to read. It is not EART SIZE but EARTH ORBIT (that means 1 transition roughly every year) that is to be confirmed 3 times (aka 3 years in total) to get an idea if the planet is in the habitable zone.

      That has nothing to do with the size of the planet as that is conducted from the brightness drop of the star when the planet passes in front of the star.

      Best Regards

      angel'o'sph

  • Selection effects (Score:5, Informative)

    by Michael Woodhams (112247) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:04PM (#35085768) Journal

    Surveys such as this tend to find lots of large planets close to their stars. It is worth pointing out that this is at least partly because such planets are easier to detect, and does not necessarily mean they are a high proportion of planets in the galaxy.

    Kepler detects changes in stellar brightness due to transiting planets. The closer a planet is to its star, the less precise the alignment has to be for us to observe a transit. Also, the closer it is, the faster it orbits, and the more likely we observe a transit in the limited time we're observing that star. This second factor will become less restrictive as the Kepler mission runs for a longer time. (I presume they need at least two, possibly more, transits before they claim a detection.) Large planets will also give a larger, easier to detect change in brightness.

    The other major way of detecting planets is spectroscopically: the planet wobbles the star slightly, and we observe the Doppler shift. This favours massive planets (they wobble the star more) and close planets (they wobble the star faster.)

    There have I think also been a few cases where clever interferometry has allowed direct imaging of extrasolar planets. I don't know what the selection effects on this are - further away means easier to separate from the star (good) but less bright (bad.)

    • They're requiring three transits to flag a potential planet for verification with other telescopes. And my understanding is that the resolution is sufficient to detect earth-sized habitable zone planets without considerable trouble, once it's been up there for the three years required to find 3 earth-like transits, so size isn't nearly the selection effect that distance (from their star) is.
  • There are billions and billions of habitable planets in an infinite universe.

    (exaggerated paraphrase of mis-attributed quote of the One (Carl Sagan) MHRIP

    -CF
    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      In an infinite universe, there are infinite habitable planets. Assuming .00000001 % of planets are habitable, you multiply that number by infinity, and guess what, you end up with infinity. Any non-zero number times infinity, is also infinity.
      • The logic is flawed. We know that there is one real number equal to the square root of two. Since the real numbers are infinite and the probably of a real number being equal to the square root of two is non-zero, there must be infinite numbers equal to the square root of two! Of course that's not the way it works. It could very well be that the conditions for life are so specific that even with an infinite set of possibilities, there is still only one planet that exactly meets those conditions. Just like th
      • Not necessarily true. The universe could indeed have infinite space, or it could expand infinitely, but that wouldn't necessarily mean that it also contains infinite matter or infinite stars and planets. Perhaps there was a big bang, inflation took off, and there were 100 trillion galaxies that formed within the first 10 billion years. The universe might expand infinitely then, though the quantity of matter (and therefore the number of galaxies, stars, and habitable planets) could still be quite finite, unl
      • by Xtifr (1323)

        In an infinite universe, there are infinite habitable planets

        Really? Even in an empty-but-infinite universe? How about an infinite universe that only has one habitable planet? Or twelve? Or nothing but blueberry preserves? In an infinite number of infinite universes, all these things must exist! :)

    • by blair1q (305137)

      And apparently our universe is 500 times infinity.

  • by DanielRavenNest (107550) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:38PM (#35086020)

    That should be more like the title of the news story. We already had found hundreds of planet candidates by other means. Now with this report we have added a bunch more using the transit method. Kepler is only scanning one patch of the sky, and only catches planets whose orbits are edge on, so they pass in front of their star (transit). So it's a pretty small sample percentage wise. Extrapolating the Kepler results to the whole sky, and all orbit angles, means there's a LOT of planets out there, millions of them. That's probably the most important news - that there are lots of planets out there. The details of orbits, masses, temperature, etc will come eventually with better instruments, but from sheer random statistics, some of them will end up with the right mass, and distance from their star to be "possibly Earthlike".

    Note that by the time we could visit such planets, we won't need them. We will have learned to live on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroids, and other non-Earthlike places long before we attempt an interstellar mission. All we really need is raw materials and sunlight. Habitable planets just make for cool news stories.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      by the time we could visit such planets, we will have learned we can't live on Earth...

  • by vettemph (540399) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:01PM (#35086196)

    ....artists rendition of a inhabitable planet ever!

    and if that's not ridiculous enough, you can click on 'Enlarge' for a better look at it.

  • by SuperCharlie (1068072) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:27PM (#35086384)
    From wiki.. Kepler-11 is a star in the Kepler spacecraft field of observations and is roughly 2000 light years away from our Solar System.

    So only a few thousand generations and we are so there...
  • by hackus (159037) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @10:11PM (#35086736) Homepage

    And only 1200 so far may look reasonable.

    Still a good ratio.

    But, pay attention to the report, in that a large number, almost half have GAS giants in the zone...more than likely with Earth sized moons or smaller.

    You could literally have Multiple Earths around a single body...I wonder how that affects the odds of life in general?

    Compare that to the situation we are in, where a rocky planet has its own orbit. That so far is a very small percentage.

    We could very well have a very unique situation.

    I find it odd that Pandora as a movie of science fiction may in fact be much more common than a rocky planet in its own orbit about the sun that has life.

    Very exciting though that we are starting to get ratios of stars to planets with habitable zones and even what sort they are.

    In another 20 years we should have a trend line to plot!!!

    All within my lifetime, which is very exciting!!!
    (Well...God willing!!)

    -Hack

    • And only 1200 so far may look reasonable.

      Still a good ratio.

      Considering that out of the 150,000 stars, there are 1200 planetary systems that are both oriented such that the planets pass directly in front of their stars as seen from our solar system, and did so over a period of about 4 months, that's a *very* good ratio. The whole point of Kepler is to gather statistics on planetary systems. There's no need to wait 20 years. Trend lines are being plotted now.

  • Great!! So..... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blankoboy (719577) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @11:30PM (#35087214)
    can we stop killing each other and focus on space exploration now? For all you corporate types: I am sure there are plenty of diamonds, gold, oil and other fantastic elements on these planets.
    • And for all you religious types out there: I am sure there are plenty of natives and alien heathens for you to convert to praise whatever god you wish. But to do so, you gotta help us get there first. Now, who wants to be the first Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu missionary to another solar system?
    • by mentil (1748130)

      can we stop killing each other and focus on space exploration now?

      No. Get back to work. - The Management

  • The Kepler space telescope found six planets around Kepler-11? Sounds a bit self-involved if you ask me. ;)

    Call me when they find a Kemplerer rosette; then I'll be impressed.

  • "NASA Finds Family of Habitable Planets"

    So, they have now determined there are a bunch of habitable planets by a telescope that

    "looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period."

    NOTHING in the actual NASA article said these

  • so, it "looked potentially habitable" 2000 years ago. If we could go there at the speed of light, we'd be there 4000 years after what we've seen. If any-one is living there, I hope they take good care of their planet during those 4000 years, or else ...
  • If it is too far for us to reach within this life time (100 light years away or something)...it is useless to worry too much about it...log them for later, once we accomplish warp drive.

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