A Place for Alien Life? Kepler Mission Discovers Earth’s Older Cousin, Kepler-452b

This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Scientists say NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered Earth’s “older, bigger first cousin” –  a planet that’s about 60 percent bigger than our own, circling a sunlike star in an orbit that could sustain liquid water and perhaps life.

“Today, Earth is a little bit less lonely, because there’s a new kid on the block,” Kepler data analysis lead Jon Jenkins, a computer scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said Thursday during a NASA teleconference about the find.

The alien world, known as Kepler-452b, is about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus – too far away to reach unless somebody perfects interstellar transporters. But its discovery raises the bar yet again in the search for Earth 2.0, which is a big part of Kepler’s mission.

Jenkins said that Kepler-452b has a better than even chance of being a rocky planet (though there’s some question about that). Its size implies that it’s about five times as massive as Earth. He said the planet might be cloudier than Earth and volcanically active, based on geological modeling. Visiting Earthlings would weigh twice as much as they did on Earth – until they walked around for a few weeks and “lost some serious pounds,” he joked.

An artist's impression  shows the surface of Kepler 452b. In the scenario depicted here, the planet is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history. Kepler 452b could be giving us a preview of what Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now as the sun ages and grows brighter. Credit: Danielle Futselaar / SETI Institute/
An artist’s impression shows the surface of Kepler 452b. In the scenario depicted here, the planet is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history. Kepler 452b could be giving us a preview of what Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now as the sun ages and grows brighter. Credit: Danielle Futselaar / SETI Institute

The planet is about 5 percent farther from its parent star than Earth is from our sun, with a year that lasts 385 days. Its sun is 10 percent bigger and 20 percent brighter than our sun, with the same classification as a G2 dwarf. But Kepler-452b’s star is older than our 4.6 billion-year-old home star – which suggests the cosmic conditions for life could be long-lasting.

“It’s simply awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star, which is longer than the age of the Earth,” Jenkins said. Models for planetary development suggest that Kepler-452b would experience an increasing warming trend and perhaps a runaway greenhouse effect as it aged, he said.

Kepler-452b’s advantages trump the mission’s earlier planetary discoveries. One involved a rocky planet, just a little bigger than Earth, that was found in its parent star’s habitable zone – that is, the kind of orbit where liquid water could exist. But that star, known as Kepler-186, is a shrunken red dwarf rather than a close analog to the sun.

Kepler research scientist Jeff Coughlin said it’s not clear how hospitable a planet circling a red dwarf might be. A rocky planet in the right orbit around a sunlike star is a surer bet. “We’re here on Earth, we know there’s life here,” he said.

Scientists said Kepler-452b is on the target list for the SETI Institute’s search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, using the Allen Telescope Array in California – but no alien detection has been reported. “So far, the 452b-ians have been coy,” Seth Shostak, the institute’s senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research, told Universe Today in an email.

Planetary system comparison
This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside our own solar system, plus another planetary system with a habitable-zone planet known as Kepler-186f. The Kepler-186 system has a faint red dwarf star.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, characterized the newly announced planet as the “closest twin” to Earth discovered so far. However, he said further analysis of the Kepler data may turn up even closer relatives.

Launched in 2009, Kepler detects alien worlds by looking for the faint dimming of a star as a planet crosses its disk. The SUV-sized telescope has spotted more than 4,600 planet candidates.

So far, about 1,000 of those have been confirmed as planets using other methods, ranging from detecting their parent stars’ Doppler shifts to carefully measuring the time intervals between the passages of planets. For Kepler-452b, scientists used ground-based observations and computer models to estimate the mass and confirm the detection to a level of 99.76 percent, Jenkins said.

The findings were due to be published online Thursday by the Astrophysical Journal, Jenkins said. In addition to Kepler-452b, another 521 planet candidates have been added to the mission’s checklist – including 12 candidates that appear to be one to two times as wide as Earth and orbit in their parent stars’ habitable zones. Nine of the stars are similar to our own sun in size and temperature, NASA said in a news release.

There’s sure to be more to come. In 2013, Kepler was crippled by failures of its fine-pointing navigation system, but it returned to its planet-hunting mission last year, thanks to some clever tweaking that makes use of the solar wind as an extra stabilizer. “It’s kind of the best-worst thing that ever happened to Kepler,” Jenkins said.

What’s Up With Ceres’ Mysterious Bright Spots? Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later

Ceres' spots
The brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres are seen in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 6, 2015. The picture was taken from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The crater that contains those puzzlingly bright spots on Ceres may harbor an equally puzzling haze. Or not. The hints of haze on the dwarf planet, seen in some of the images coming from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, add another intriguing twist to Ceres’ mysteries.

The hubbub over haze arose this week during the Exploration Science Forum at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. For months, Dawn’s scientists have been observing – and trying to make sense out of – unusually reflective spots within Ceres’ craters that show up when the asteroid turns into the sunlight. The team has speculated that they could be frozen pools of water ice, or patches of light-colored, salt-rich material.

The brightest spots are known collectively as Spot 5, and sit inside Occator Crater on Ceres. Dawn’s principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles, told the forum that some type of haze could be seen inside the crater at certain times of Ceres’ day, according to reports from Nature and the Planetary Society. Nature quoted Russell as saying the bright spots “could be providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres.”

Last year, scientists with the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission reported detecting signs of water vapor rising from Ceres’ surface, and it would be tempting to suggest that the water vapor is emanating from bright icy spots and creating the haze. That would strengthen Ceres’ status as the only asteroid with a significant atmosphere and a subsurface reservoir of water, and stoke speculation about life on Ceres.

However, Russell told Universe Today that it’s way too early to give in to temptation.

“I was speaking from less than a handful of images, and the interpretation of the images is disputed by some team members,” Russell said in an email. “I would like the debate to go on internally before we make a pronouncement one way or the other. I of course have my personal opinion, but I am not always right.”

Russell said the ice-vs.-salt debate is continuing. “I originally was an advocate of ice, because of how bright the spots seemed to be,” he said. However, the bright material’s albedo, or reflectivity factor, is about 50 percent – which is less than Russell originally thought. “This could be salt and is unlikely to be ice. I think the team opinion is now more in line with salt,” he said.

Either way, Russell doesn’t see any way for the spots to form without internal activity on Ceres. “Thus, the very existence of the spots tells us that there is some active process going on,” he told Universe Today.

Will we ever know if the haze is for real? Or what the spots are made of? As the Magic 8-Ball might say, “Ask again later.” The Dawn spacecraft recently recovered from a mechanical glitch and is gradually descending to a closer mapping orbit, around an altitude of 900 miles (1,500 kilometers). That will provide a much better look at Occator Crater and what lies within.

“Eventually I am expecting the spectral data will unambiguously tell us what has happened to the surface,” Russell said, “but it is a little too soon to be sure.”