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Earth-sized planets common in the Milky Way

Artist's impression of an Earth-like exoplanet

There are billions of Sun-like stars in our galaxy, 17 percent of which have close-orbiting planets not much bigger than Earth. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

  • NASA’s Kepler space mission aims to detect Earth-like planets
  • New analysis shows that early Kepler analyses missed over 30 planets
  • It’s now thought 17% of Sun-like stars have planets not much bigger than Earth

AN ANALYSIS OF THE FIRST three years of data from NASA’s Kepler mission, which already has detected thousands of potential exoplanets, contains good news for those searching for habitable worlds outside our Solar System.

It shows that 17 percent of all Sun-like stars have planets one to two times the diameter of Earth orbiting close to their host stars, according to a team of astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

This estimate includes only planets that circle their stars within a distance of about one-quarter of Earth’s orbital radius – which would be well within the orbit of Mercury if it were in our Solar System. This is the current limit of Kepler’s detection capability.

Further evidence suggests that the fraction of stars having planets the size of Earth or slightly bigger orbiting within Earth-like orbits may amount to 50 percent.

The team – UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, former UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Andrew Howard, now on the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and UC Berkeley professor of astronomy Geoff Marcy – reported its findings on Wednesday (Australian time) at a session on the Kepler mission during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California.

Not necessarily habitable

Planets one to two times the size of Earth are not necessarily habitable. Painstaking observations by Petigura’s team show that planets two or three times the diameter of Earth are typically like Uranus and Neptune, which have a rocky core surrounded by helium and hydrogen gases and perhaps water. Planets close to a star may even be water worlds – planets with oceans hundreds of kilometres deep above a rocky core.

Nevertheless, planets between one and two times the diameter of Earth may well be rocky and, if located within the Goldilocks orbital zone – not too hot, not too cold, just right for liquid water – could support life.

“Kepler’s one goal is to answer a question that people have been asking since the days of Aristotle: What fraction of stars like the Sun have an Earth-like planet?” said Howard. “We’re not there yet, but Kepler has found enough planets that we can make statistical estimates.”

Plot of Kepler and TERRA exoplanets

Using a computer program called TERRA, scientists have sifted extra exoplanets (red dots) out of the existing Kepler data (grey dots). Image by Erik Petigura and Geoff Marcy, UC Berkeley, and Andrew Howard, Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii.

Finding planets in the ‘noise’

The estimates are based on a better understanding of the percentage of big Earth-size planets that Kepler misses because of uncertainties in detection, which the team estimates to be about one in four, or 25 percent.

To find planets, the Kepler telescope captures repeated images of 150,000 stars in a region of the sky in the constellation Cygnus. The data are analysed by computer software – the “pipeline” – in search of stars that dim briefly as a result of a planet passing in front, called a transit.

For planets as large as Jupiter, the star may dim by 1 percent, or one part in 100, which is easily detectable. A planet as small as Earth, however, dims the star by one part in 10,000, which is likely to be lost in the data ‘noise’, Petigura said.

The missing worlds

So Petigura spent the past two years writing a software program called TERRA, which is very similar to Kepler’s pipeline. The team then fed TERRA simulated planets to test how efficiently the software detects Earth-size planets.

After carefully measuring the fraction of planets missed by TERRA, the team corrected for this and then plugged in real Kepler observations freely available on the Internet. They identified 119 Earth-like planets ranging in size from nearly six times the diameter of Earth to the diameter of Mars. Thirty-seven of these planets were not identified in previous Kepler reports.

The analysis confirmed that the number of planets increases as the size decreases, which Howard and the Kepler team reported last year. Perhaps 1 percent of stars have planets the size of Jupiter, while 10 percent have planets the size of Neptune.

Adapted from information issued by the University of California, Berkeley.

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First Earth-size planets orbiting a Sun-like star

Comparison of Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f with Venus and Earth

Comparison of newfound planets, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, with Venus and Earth from our Solar System. The two Kepler planets are the first Earth-size worlds found circling a Sun-like star elsewhere in our galaxy.

  • First Earth-size planets found orbiting another Sun-like star
  • The system is 1,000 light-years from Earth
  • Three other planets already known in this system

NASA’S KEPLER MISSION has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a Sun-like star outside our Solar System. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed circling a star like our Sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the search for planets like Earth.

The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is a bit larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius.

Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years from Earth.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean the planets circle close to their star, and are therefore very hot, inhospitable worlds.

Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 760 degrees Celsius, would melt glass.

Earth-size planets now known to exist

“The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, and lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature.

“This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”

Artist's impression of Kepler-20e

Artist's impression of Kepler-20e, which is about 0.87 times the radius of Earth.

The Kepler-20 system includes three other planets that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Kepler-20b, the closest planet, Kepler-20c, the third planet, and Kepler-20d, the fifth planet, orbit their star every 3.7, 10.9 and 77.6 days.

All five planets have orbits lying roughly within Mercury’s orbit in our Solar System. The host star belongs to the same G-type class as our Sun, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

Odd planetary system

The system has an unexpected arrangement. In our Solar System, small, rocky worlds orbit close to the Sun and large, gaseous worlds orbit farther out. In comparison, the planets of Kepler-20 are organised in alternating size: large, small, large, small and large.

“The Kepler data are showing us some planetary systems have arrangements of planets very different from that seen in our Solar System,” said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.

“The analysis of Kepler data continue to reveal new insights about the diversity of planets and planetary systems within our galaxy.”

Scientists are not certain how the system evolved but they do not think the planets formed in their existing locations.

They theorise the planets formed farther from their star and then migrated inward, likely through interactions with the disc of material from which they originated.

This allowed the worlds to maintain their regular spacing despite alternating sizes.

Artist's impression of Kepler-20f

Artist's impression of Kepler-20f, which is about 1.03 times as wide as Earth.

Cosmic game of hide and seek

The Kepler space telescope detects planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets crossing in front, or transiting, their stars.

The Kepler science team requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

On December 5 the team announced the discovery of Kepler-22b in the habitable zone of its parent star. It is likely to be too large to have a rocky surface.

While Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are Earth-size, they are too close to their parent star to have liquid water on the surface.

“In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University.

“We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler’s most anticipated discoveries are still to come.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

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