Scientists from the Kepler mission announced this morning the first confirmed exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star, the region where liquid water could exist on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth. Evidence for others has already been found by Kepler, but this is the first confirmation. The planet, Kepler-22b, is also only about 2.4 times the radius of Earth — the smallest planet found in a habitable zone so far — and orbits its star, Kepler-22, in 290 days. It is about 600 light-years away from Earth, and Kepler-22 is only slightly smaller and cooler than our own Sun. Not only is the planet in the habitable zone, but astronomers have determined its surface temperature averages a comfortable 22 degrees C (72 degrees F). Since the planet’s mass is not yet known, astronomers haven’t determined if it is a rocky or gaseous planet. But this discovery is a major step toward finding Earth-like worlds around other stars. A very exciting discovery, but there’s more…
It was also announced that Kepler has found 1,094 more planetary candidates, increasing the number now to 2,326! That’s an increase of 89% since the last update this past February. Of these, 207 are near Earth size, 680 are super-Earth size, 1,181 are Neptune size, 203 are Jupiter size and 55 are larger than Jupiter. These findings continue the observational trend seen before, where smaller planets are apparently more numerous than larger gas giant planets. The number of Earth size candidates has increased by more than 200 percent and the number of super-Earth size candidates has increased by 140 percent.
According to Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead at San Jose State University in San Jose, California, “The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we’re honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable. The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods.”
Regarding Kepler-22b, William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California stated: “Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet. The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season.”
Previously there were 54 planetary candidates in habitable zones, but this was changed to 48, after the Kepler team redefined the definition of what constitutes a habitable zone in order to account for the warming effects of atmospheres which could shift the zone farther out from a star.
The announcements were made at the inaugural Kepler science conference which runs from December 5-9 at Ames Research Center.
See also the press release from the Carnegie Institution for Science here.
Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.