December 7, 2011
December 7, 2011. Outer Space. It’s fitting that this article is published on December 7th, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Conquest and expansion have proven to be one of the more dominant traits in our collective human DNA. But don’t pack your bags and load the old hunting rifle yet.
NASA discovers first possibly habitable planet.
It’s too early to send colonists, as scientists don’t even know what type of atmosphere or terrain the newly discovered planet has. What scientists have announced, is that this is the first planet ever discovered that revolves around a sustainable sun at a distance that should give the planet an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
As detailed in an article by Space.com, the planet has been named Kepler-22b and it was discovered by scientists using the Kepler Space Telescope. The telescope was launched in March 2009 at a cost of $600 million. The mission’s stated goal was to search for Earth-like planets, orbiting a star in what is called that “habitable zone”. That’s the razor thin window of distance from the planet’s sun that creates a temperature not too hot and not too cold. The overall mission is to find a planet like Earth that either already has life or is capable of sustaining it.
“We’re getting closer and closer to discovering the so-called ‘Goldilocks planet'” NASA’s Pete Worden announced from Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin” added Douglas Hudgins, NASA scientist on the Kepler program.
Kepler-22b is two and a half times the size of Earth. It’s located 600 light years away and revolves around a star similar to our own sun. The planet’s average temperature is thought to be roughly 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as that of Earth. Kepler-22b also revolves around its sun at roughly the same interval as Earth. Whether or not any liquid water exists or if the planet has an atmosphere, is yet to be discovered.
The Kepler Space Telescope program is scheduled to end in 2012. Scientists however, are preparing their request for funding to continue the program. “We are getting very close. We are homing in on the truly Earth-size, habitable planets” Kepler team leader Natalie Batalha explained.
In its 16 months in action, the Kepler telescope has identified 2,326 celestial bodies scientists believe may be planets. Currently, Earth’s astronomers have only confirmed the existence of 700 planets total in the entire universe. Of that number, 48 revolve around their star in the “habitable zone” and 207 are roughly the same size as Earth. The largest number of discovered planets however, fall into the category titled ‘Super Earths’. Those are planets like Jupiter that are many times larger than our own planet.
In September of this year, Space.com announced that the European Southern Observatory in Chile had discovered 50 new planets. 16 of those were Super Earths, including one that orbited its sun on the outer edge of the ‘habitable zone’. Named HD-85512b, the super Earth planet orbits the sun called HD-85512 in the constellation Vela. Unlike the American-discovered Kepler-22b, HD-85512b is right next door at only 35 light years away. It’s approximately 50 percent larger than the Keper-discovered planet however, putting it into the ‘super Earth’ classification.
Guide to Alien Planets – from Life’s Little Mysteries
Exo-Earths – These are the Earth-like planets also known as ‘Goldilocks planets’. They are terrestrial planets made of rock or other terrain similar to that of Earth. They also must be roughly the same size as Earth to be able to recreate a similar atmosphere. Lastly, they must also rotate around their own star within that tiny window that would place their distance from their star a midrange like Earth – not too hot, not too cold.
Super-Earths – A Super-Earth is a planet similar to our own, only much larger. Most super-Earths are estimated to be more than 10 times the size of our own planet. Due to their large size, scientists assume their surface is much more violent than that of Earth’s. That assumption is based on suspicions that a plant that size would have thinner continental plates under more stress and pressure than Earth.
Pulsar Planets – The first discovery of a group of planets outside our own solar system was a string of pulsar planets identified in 1994 in the constellation Virgo, roughly 980 light years away. These planet types don’t travel freely outside of a solar system, but instead revolve around pulsars. Pulsars are extremely dense, rapidly spinning left-overs of a past supernova explosion. The first planet ever discovered outside our solar system was also a pulsar planet. It’s called Methuselah and is located more than 5,600 light years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius.
Hot Jupiters – These planet types are gas giants like our own Jupiter, except, hot Jupiters are located closer to their star than Mercury is to our own Sun. For that reason, they are subject to extreme heat. So far, 89 planets categorized as ‘hot Jupiters’ have been discovered. Scientists believe these may be easier to discover than most planets due to their massive size.
Eccentric Planets – These celestial bodies are categorized by the orbit, not their size or make-up. Unlike most planets that either have circular orbits around their star or wander freely through space, eccentric planets revolve around a star in an irregular orbit. During part of their journey, they are extremely close to their star and its heat. During most of their orbit however, these planets sling-shot out to extreme distances and the cold the follows. Due to the extreme temperature swings, these planets could never sustain human life.
It was a mysterious eccentric planet that was the subject of the science fiction writer Zecharia Sitchin in his 1976 book ‘The 12th Planet’. Many of Sitchin’s fans have since argued that there may in fact be a 12th planet in our own solar system that follows this eccentric orbit. At the time, scientists and astronomers ridiculed the notion and called the idea purely science fiction. Read the timeless Whiteout Press article, ‘Genesis and the Twelfth Planet’ for more information.
Water Worlds – Unlike the many ice worlds in the galaxy, a water world would exist close enough to a star to keep the planet’s water in liquid form. Also, unlike Earth, water worlds have a surface that is completely covered in water, with the possible exception of any mountain peaks poking through. Scientists have speculated that there may be two types of water worlds. One is much like Earth in that it has a core and some kind of rocky terrain, only that surface is completely covered in water. The other scenario is a planet made up entirely of water. In stead of being a ball of ice like most of its counterparts located further away from a star, these water worlds would be so hot they would made up entirely of oceans thousands of miles deep and an atmosphere of thick, hot steam.
Chthonian Planets – These planets have had their surfaces and atmospheres ripped away by the heat and extreme gravity of their nearby star. What is left is the dense, rocky core of the old planet. In most cases, scientists assume the planet is located so close to its star that the celestial body is nothing more than a ball of boiling, liquid lava.
Free-Floating Planets – These free-wheeling planets do not have an orbit, a star or a solar system. Instead, they rocket through the galaxy alone. Scientists have never been able to conclude whether these planets used to rotate around a star at some time in the past and were knocked out of orbit somehow. Or perhaps, many of them never belonged to a solar system to begin with. These planets are the most mysterious to astronomers due to the way experts gather data. Most observations are made based in the interval of a planet’s ‘blip’. That tells scientists how often it rotates around its sun, which in turn provides data about the planet’s distance and speed.
Rogue Planets – These planets are almost exactly like the free-floating planets above. In the case of rogue planets however, scientists are positive they were ejected from a previous solar system. These planets often adopt a new orbit based on distant stars or planets with a greater gravitational pull or they develop their own unique course affected on a galactic level. In many instances, the orbits of these planets change due to the competing forces of numerous gravitational pulls.