Kepler Team Finds System with Two Potentially Habitable Planets

by Nancy Atkinson on April 18, 2013

The newly discovered planets named Kepler-62e and -f are super-Earths in the habitable zone of a distant sun-like star. The largest planet in the image, Kepler-62f, is farthest from its star and covered by ice. Kepler-62e, in the foreground, is nearer to its star and covered by dense clouds. Closer in orbits a Neptune-size ice giant with another small planet transiting its star. Both habitable-zone planets may be capable of supporting life. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

The newly discovered planets named Kepler-62e and -f are super-Earths in the habitable zone of a distant sun-like star. The largest planet in the image, Kepler-62f, is farthest from its star and covered by ice. Kepler-62e, in the foreground, is nearer to its star and covered by dense clouds. Closer in orbits a Neptune-size ice giant with another small planet transiting its star. Both habitable-zone planets may be capable of supporting life.
Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

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.

Masses and sizes for selected planets. The curves show the mass-radius-relation (average density) for different types of planets: The blue line indicates the loci of planets made mostly (75%) of water, the black line that of planets like our Earth that consist almost exclusively of rock (represented here by the mineral Enstatite, MgSiO3, a member of the pyroxite silicate mineral series that makes up most of the Earth's mantle), and so on. The measured radii of Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f plus an estimate of their mass places them in a region (blue areas) where it is highly probable for them to be earth-like planets, that is: planets with a solid (if possibly covered in water) surface. Kepler-11f, on the other hand, is a Mini-Neptune, showing clearly that a comparatively low mass does not necessarily make for a solid planet. Image: L. Kaltenegger (MPIA)

Masses and sizes for selected planets. The curves show the mass-radius-relation (average density) for different types of planets: The blue line indicates the loci of planets made mostly (75%) of water, the black line that of planets like our Earth that consist almost exclusively of rock (represented here by the mineral Enstatite, MgSiO3, a member of the pyroxite silicate mineral series that makes up most of the Earth’s mantle), and so on. The measured radii of Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f plus an estimate of their mass places them in a region (blue areas) where it is highly probable for them to be earth-like planets, that is: planets with a solid (if possibly covered in water) surface. Kepler-11f, on the other hand, is a Mini-Neptune, showing clearly that a comparatively low mass does not necessarily make for a solid planet. Image: L. Kaltenegger (MPIA)

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 habitable zone (in which liquid water on a planet's surface can exist) for different types of stars. The inner planets of our Solar System are shown on top, with Earth and Mars in the habitable zone. Kepler-62 is a notably cooler star, and Kepler-62e and -62f are in its habitable zone. For Kepler-69c, another planet announced today by NASA, the error bars for the star's radiation are such that it could possibly in the habitable zone as well. Kepler-22b, the smallest planet found in a habitable zone before the recent discoveries, is very likely a Mini-Neptune, and not a solid planet. In what is denoted the empirical habitable zone, liquid water can exist on the surface of a planet if that planet has sufficient cloud cover. In the narrow habitable zone, liquid water can exist on the surface even without the presence of a cloud cover. Image: L. Kaltenegger (MPIA)

The habitable zone (in which liquid water on a planet’s surface can exist) for different types of stars. The inner planets of our Solar System are shown on top, with Earth and Mars in the habitable zone. Kepler-62 is a notably cooler star, and Kepler-62e and -62f are in its habitable zone. For Kepler-69c, another planet announced today by NASA, the error bars for the star’s radiation are such that it could possibly in the habitable zone as well. Kepler-22b, the smallest planet found in a habitable zone before the recent discoveries, is very likely a Mini-Neptune, and not a solid planet. In what is denoted the empirical habitable zone, liquid water can exist on the surface of a planet if that planet has sufficient cloud cover. In the narrow habitable zone, liquid water can exist on the surface even without the presence of a cloud cover. Image: L. Kaltenegger (MPIA)

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.

Kepler-62 system. Five planets, two of which are in the Habitable Zone. Credit: NASA

Kepler-62 system. Five planets, two of which are in the Habitable Zone. Credit: NASA

“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.

Kaltenegger provides more details on these exoplanets in this video:

Sources: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, CfA

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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