Galaxy Quest: Just How Many Earth-Like Planets Are Out There?

Nov 5, 2013
Originally published on November 5, 2013 10:36 am

A team of planet hunters estimates that about 22 percent of the sun-like stars in our galaxy may have planets about the size of Earth that are bathed in similar amounts of sunlight — and potentially habitable.

That's the conclusion of a new analysis of observations taken by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009 to hunt for potentially habitable Earth-like planets around other stars.

Kepler's goal was to find out if planets like Earth were cosmic rarities or a common occurrence. The telescope continually monitored the brightness of more than 145,000 stars, watching for telltale dips in brightness that might indicate a planet was passing between the star and the telescope.

At a conference to discuss Kepler findings this week, scientists who have combed through the first three years of data say that so far, they've detected indications of 3,538 possible planets, of all different sizes.

Of those planets, 104 are in the so-called habitable zone, where temperatures are mild enough to potentially allow life. Of those, "we're finding about 24 planets that are actually less than twice the size of the Earth," says William Borucki, the principal investigator for the Kepler mission at NASA Ames Research Center. At that size, he says, you might very well expect at least some or many of them to be rocky rather than gaseous.

Earlier this year, however, a critical part of the telescope failed, cutting its work short. Scientists worry that they may not have had enough time to determine how often Earth-like planets orbit sun-like stars.

Now, Erik Petigura and Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, along with Andrew Howard of the University of Hawaii, have tried to answer that question with an extrapolation that used Kepler data from 42,000 sun-like stars.

They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found 603 likely planets, including 10 that are roughly Earth-sized and receive similar amounts of sunlight.

They also checked how well their software could detect Earth twins by creating data for fake planets and seeing how many of these fake planets were picked up or missed.

"You can hope that you are finding all the planets, or you can make guesses about how many planets you are missing, but you really don't know until you subject ... your analysis to a complex and thorough battery of tests," Petigura says.

Other planet hunters have been closely examining the group's work, says Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

"This is the first time that a team has offered such a number for stars like the sun, based on a thorough detection analysis," says Batalha. "My office was crowded with people, actively talking about the details of the work. The mood was very festive, and the dialogue was very productive."

David Charbonneau of Harvard University says the researchers have "done a careful study, and the results are very interesting."

But he notes that the team did not detect a single planet that is the same size and temperature as Earth. Instead, he points out, the group found planets that are larger and hotter, and used them to calculate the prevalence of more Earth-like worlds.

"The analysis of the Kepler data is by no means finished, and with dedicated effort it may be possible to further clean out the noise and some true Earths may pop out — but for now we have to be satisfied with knowing the population of planets that are broadly Earth-like, but in truth are probably too big and too hot for life," Charbonneau told NPR via email.

Earlier this year, Charbonneau and his colleague Courtney Dressing unveiled a study showing that around 15 percent of small red dwarf stars have a roughly Earth-sized planet in their habitable zones.

Marcy says if you combine that result with this newer study looking at sun-like stars, it suggests that our Milky Way galaxy contains something like 40 billion Earth-sized planets with lukewarm temperatures. "So that's really the stunning number, I think," says Marcy.

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And now, let's turn our gaze from star-crossed lovers to the heavens above. A study examines our long-held speculation that there might be other planets out there, something like Earth. The study estimates how many such worlds there could be in this galaxy orbiting stars like our Sun. The answer is billions and billions. Well, maybe not actually that many, but quite a lot.

Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope to hunt for planets beyond our solar system. Geoffrey Marcy is at the University of California, Berkeley, he says the big question was this: Is Earth a cosmic freak or just one of many potentially habitable worlds.

GEOFFREY MARCY: For me, personally, as a child, I remember looking up at the night sky and wondering if any of those twinkling lights had Earth-like planets around them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kepler stared at around 150,000 stars, looking for a tell-tale dimming in brightness that might indicate a passing planet.

MARCY: Every minute for four years - while you were sleeping, working, playing, watching television - every moment of your life, Kepler was taking snapshot after snapshot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Researchers have seen dimming events that suggest thousands of possible planets, from big gassy ones a bit like Jupiter, to smaller ones that might be rocky like Earth. Earlier this year, the Kepler telescope stopped working. But scientists are still combing through all the data.

Marcy and two colleagues, Erik Petigura and Andrew Howard, have now looked a bunch of stars like our Sun - 42,000 of them. They searched for orbiting planets about the size of Earth in the so-called Goldilocks Zone around the star, where conditions are not too hot and not too cold, which means there could be liquid water and the possibility of life.

They also did an analysis to figure out how many planets their detection system would likely miss. And the results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They calculate that 22 percent of stars like the Sun have an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone. When he talked about these findings at a press briefing, Marcy said he felt a little tingly.

MARCY: We're learning that Earth-sized planets having the temperature of a cup of tea are common around Sun-like stars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is the first time anyone has come up with a number to answer the big question that the Kepler telescope set out to tackle, so it's getting a lot of attention.

Natalie Batalha is Kepler mission scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

NATALIE BATALHA: My office was crowded with people actively talking about the details of the work. The mood was very festive and the dialogue was very productive.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, this study is unlikely to be the last word on how many Earths might be orbiting other suns. David Charbonneau is an astronomer at Harvard University.

DAVID CHARBONNEAU: You're going to see dozens of studies along these lines in the years to come, as we keep pushing on our analysis of the Kepler data.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it does seem that Earth-like planets may be pretty common.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.


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