Scientists Reveal a New Habitable Exoplanet Very Close to Earth
Image by NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech (, ) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Life beyond our planet has always fascinated us. It is always that question of “are we really alone in the universe” that drives astronomers and scientists to look for potential planets that could harbor life. But the task of looking for planets similar to ours is never so easy. There have been remarkable leaps in technological advancements over the centuries, but the challenge of finding life outside Earth still remains elusive.
There have been successful missions to our neighboring planets Venus, Mars, and now Jupiter. But none of them have successfully found traces of life. It appears that in this solar system, Earth is the only place where life exists. But what about planets that could exist beyond this solar system? Are there other earth-like planets out there?
Earth’s Powerful Telescopes
Image by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This lingering question is constantly being explored by NASA through its several space telescopes. These powerful scientific tools are launched to outer space, a few hundred kilometers from earth, in order to observe other galaxies and its stars. NASA has collected thousands of reports, images, and data from these telescopes through the following missions:
- Hubble Space Telescope – launched in 1990, it was the first space telescope to take snapshots of the universe 559 kilometers from Earth. It light of its retirement, Hubble was able to conduct 1.2 million observations.
- Spitzer – launched in 2003 as the first infrared telescope, Spitzer provided a different view of the universe by capturing heat signatures emitted by stars. It orbited 568 kilometers from the Earth, a little farther than the Hubble.
- Kepler and K2 – launched in 2009, this became the first space telescope dedicated to studying exoplanets. It was able to observe more than 4,600 candidate exoplanets, of which 2,330 are confirmed. Interestingly, only 21 confirmed exoplanets are within habitable zones.
- TESS – Schedule for launch in 2018, TESS or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will be focusing on observing potential exoplanets as they pass through their star. It will be launched through the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
- JWST – Dubbed as “Hubble’s Successor”, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2018 as well but will be orbiting the sun (not the Earth this time). It will be 1.5 million kilometers from Earth with one side exposed to sunlight 100 percent of the time.
With the Kepler telescope currently leading the way in discovering exoplanets, scientists are gaining more knowledge on worlds outside the Sun’s solar system. And in the very short list of confirmed exoplanets in the habitable zone lies Kepler 186f, whose distance is 500 light-years from Earth. It resides in the Kepler-186 system in the constellation of Cygnus along with four other planets that orbits closer to its star.
Kepler 186f is the fifth and outermost planet in the system. It orbits around an M dwarf star, which is generally cooler than the sun. According to NASA, Kepler 186f receives the same amount of sunlight as Earth does, though dimmer as noon time in 186f is equivalent to an hour before sunset on earth. Scientists also surmise that 186f is a rocky planet and may have the same conditions and atmosphere of Earth. A year in Kepler 186f is equivalent to 130 Earth days.
Exoplanet in Proxima Centauri
Image by ESA/Hubble [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aside from the Kepler mission, scientists at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have made a breakthrough discovery. Just this August, they unraveled the discovery of an exoplanet in Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun. Located just 4.25 light-years from Earth, the exoplanet is located within the habitable zone of that system, making it possible for liquid water to exist, and thus harbor life.
Scientists were elated with this discovery as the closest habitable exoplanets identified by Kepler were hundreds of lightyears away from Earth. Kepler 452b is 1,400 light-years from earth while Kepler 186f is 500 light-years away.
Once space telescopes JWST and TESS have been launched, they may be able to shed a light on this important discovery. And with more details gathered about the new exoplanet in Proxima Centauri, missions to this neighboring system may not be impossible to achieve. Perhaps by this lifetime, scientists will finally be able to answer the question if we are really alone in the universe.