Facts and myths about the Kepler exoplanet cadidates

July 29, 2010

Screenshot from Sasselov's talk

So there’s been a bit of a media buzz lately about the possibility that the Kepler space observatory may have discovered 100’s of earth-like planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Recently at a TED talk, one of the chief investigating scientists on the Kepler team, Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, mentioned that the team had found “candidates” for “earth-like” worlds, “that is, having a radius smaller than twice Earth’s radius.” Many mainstream media outlets have twisted this into reports saying that we’ve found 100’s of earth-twins (having an atmosphere, liquid water, etc…) orbiting other stars.

First of all, we HAVE NOT confirmed ANY of these as exoplanets yet. It will take considerable follow-up observations by other telescopes to confirm these as exoplanets, and not glitches or other phenomena that look like a transiting exoplanet. Also, the phrase “earth-like” as he used it simply means that it’s similar in size to earth. Just because an exoplanet is similar in size and composition to earth does not mean it is habitable. In fact, most of the exoplanet candidates have fast orbits and are very close to their parent star (which is why they were detected so quickly). This would make them much more akin to Mercury or Venus- both of which are far too hot to sustain life. The true earth-like exoplanets (that are in the habitable zone, have a similar radius, and could potentially harbor life) will take at least another year to discover, simply because they have longer orbital periods- closer to 1 year. Most of this information was culled from Dr. Sasselov’s NASA blog post in which he clarifies what he was saying in his talk. For even more info, check out Universe Today.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited about this mission, but I’m not going to pop the champagne cork until those scientists issue an official press release saying something like, “YES, we have definitely PROVEN that planet earth is not unique, and our galaxy is filled with small, rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent stars.” That is a day I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little boy fascinated by astronomy programs on the Discovery channel and the X-Files. There has been tons of speculation on this matter, but until now there was no solid, observational evidence to PROVE it.

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