The announcement from NASA today about a new Earth-like planet has many implications. The quick version of this: It’s older and larger than Earth. The broad view, the powerful Kepler satellite was designed to search the universe for other planets that might be able to sustain life. At least life as we know it. So scientists have been focusing on stars similar to our sun, with orbiting planets of a similar size. Among these planets, the next step is then to see if they have two basic ingredients that we believe will sustain life: Oxygen and water. What makes our planet so unique even within our own solar system is that water exists in all three phases and can do so at the same time. Ice, which was recently confirmed on Pluto, but it’s so cold it remains like that indefinitely. Liquid water and water vapor are the other two critical forms for our existence. Which brings me to my focus, weather! Is this another place to forecast? Well, all planetary bodies with an atmosphere have weather of some form. Martian weather monitoring is a top feature of the rovers research. I must also credit Professor Mark Wysocki at Cornell University for my interest. He introduced me (and many) to weather on Mars and in every class of his I took, he found a way for us to convert our calculations to a Martian atmosphere.
These views of the planet seen here are artist renditions, not actual photos from Kepler. NASA has some incredible artists and I love their visuals, but it can give the wrong message while helping to tell the story. The way Kepler identifies planets is not by sight, but monitoring the light output from a distant star. A change is measured when one or a few planets pass in front of the view (transit, not a full eclipse). From the time of crossing, it can be mathematically determined the size and orbital distance of each planet. Also, the edges of the planets might determine if there is an atmosphere and what chemicals it might contain. If there is water, and the distance from its sun is right, there could similar conditions as found on Earth.
So what was discovered?
Kepler-452b is about 60% larger than Earth. To put that in perspective, if a human was to visit he or she would experience gravity about twice that of here at home. If an intelligent being from that planet was to visit us, gravity would be about half of what they are use to. Do you remember men walking on the moon? They could jump like that. Perhaps the image of Jor-El sending his son Kal-El from Krypton come to mind. Superhuman strength? If so, we would want to make sure they know we come in peace, right?
More about the planet from NASA:
“While Kepler-452b is larger than Earth, its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer. The planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger.”
It was Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California that came up with the idea of this being an older cousin of Earth. But not the kind that you see every year at the holidays. This was found in the Cygnus constellation, 1,400 light years away. That means if the starship Enterprise went to Warp Drive, it was would 1,400 years to reach Kepler 452b. Minus finding a worm hole or other shortcut. So we can’t get there anytime soon.
How long to travel there?
1 light-year is 5.8 trillion miles The fastest unmanned space craft traveled 157,000 mph. At that rate, it would take only 4,250 earth years to travel 1 light-year. Multiply that by 1,400 and it would take 5,950,000 years to arrive.
Jenkins went on to say that the planet almost certainly has an atmosphere. But geological assumptions would have it most likely be thicker than Earth with active volcanoes. The water part, that is the critical part that is still yet to be determined.
Not the first Earth-like planet from this mission
In April 2014, NASA announced another planet. Kepler-186f. This was closer in size and distance. Only a mere 500 light years away. But it orbited a red dwarf star, so not the optimal set up for human sustaining life. There are currently 4696 exoplanets that have been identified as possible Earth-like and waiting for follow up analysis.
Video of First Earth Size Planet Found: Kepler-186f Announcement
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