New Kepler exoplanets 'best candidates' for hosting life

Data from NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission has revealed two small, potentially rocky planets within their star's habitable zone. 

Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/AP
This undated handout artist concept provided by Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows the newly discovered planets named Kepler-62e and -f. Scientists using NASA's Kepler telescope have found two distant planets that are in the right place and are the right size for potential life.

This might be the most exciting exoplanet news yet. An international team of scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Kepler mission has found a planetary system with two small, potentially rocky planets that lie within the habitable zone of their star. The star, Kepler-62, is a bit smaller and cooler than our Sun, and is home to a five-planet system. Two of the worlds, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f are the smallest exoplanets yet found in a habitable zone, and they might both be covered in water or ice, depending on what kind of atmosphere they might have.

“Imagine looking through a telescope to see another world with life just a few million miles from your own. Or, having the capability to travel between them on a regular basis. I can’t think of a more powerful motivation to become a space-faring society,” said Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, who is co-author of a new paper describing the discovery.

Kepler-62 in the constellation Lyra, and is about 1,200 light-years from Earth.

62e is 1.61 times Earth’s size, circles the star in 122.4 (Earth) days. 62f is 1.4 times the size of Earth, and orbits its star in 267.3 days. Previously, the smallest planet with known radius inside a habitable zone was Kepler-22b, with a radius of 2.4 times that of the Earth.

A third planet in another star system was also announced at a press briefing today. Kepler-69c is 70 percent larger than the size of Earth, and orbits in the habitable zone of a star similar to our Sun. Researchers are uncertain about the composition of Kepler-69c, but astronomer Thomas Barclay from the BAER Institute said its closer orbit of 242 days around a Sun-like star means it is likely more like a super-Venus rather than a super-Earth.

The team says that while the sizes of Kepler 62e and 62f are known, their mass and densities are not. However, every planet found in their size range so far has been rocky, like Earth.

“These planets are unlike anything in our solar system. They have endless oceans,” said lead author Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “There may be life there, but could it be technology-based like ours? Life on these worlds would be under water with no easy access to metals, to electricity, or fire for metallurgy. Nonetheless, these worlds will still be beautiful blue planets circling an orange star — and maybe life’s inventiveness to get to a technology stage will surprise us.”

As the warmer of the two worlds, Kepler-62e would have a bit more clouds than Earth according to computer models. More distant Kepler-62f would need the greenhouse effect from plenty of carbon dioxide to warm it enough to host an ocean. Otherwise, it might become an ice-covered snowball.

“Kepler-62e probably has a very cloudy sky and is warm and humid all the way to the polar regions. Kepler-62f would be cooler, but still potentially life-friendly,” said Harvard astronomer and co-author Dimitar Sasselov. “The good news is — the two would exhibit distinctly different colors and make our search for signatures of life easier on such planets in the near future. “

The Kepler spacecraft is able to detect planets that transit or cross the face of their host star. Measuring a transit tells astronomers the size of the planet relative to its star.

“All of the other interesting planets in the habitable zone were until now discovered by what is known as the radial velocity method,” said Kaltenegger. “This method gives you a lower limit for the planet’s mass, but no information about its radius. This makes it difficult to assess whether or not a planet is rocky, like the Earth. A small radius (less than 2 Earth radii), on the other hand, is a strong indicator that a planet around is indeed rocky – unless we are talking about a planet around a very young star.”

“What makes Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f so exciting is a combination of two factors,” Kaltenegger added. “We know their radius, which indicates that these are indeed rocky planets, and they orbit their star in the habitable zone. That makes them our best candidates for habitable planets out there yet.

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with the Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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