NASA's New Discovery Leads to Earth-Like Planet Candidate Requiring Further Exploration

NASA Discovers Potential Earth-Like Planet Candidate in Kepler Data

NASA's Kepler mission has led to the agency's discovery of an exoplanet candidate orbiting a sun-like star. The finding is notable as the planet candidate, Kepler-1649c, is located in the habitable zone of its parent star, where scientists believe conditions are suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Kepler-1649c is a relatively small planet, similar in size to Earth, and orbits a star similar to our Sun. The planet is situated at a distance that's not too hot or too cold for liquid water on its surface, making it an exciting potential candidate for habitability.

This discovery was made possible through the reanalysis of data obtained by the Kepler Space Telescope during its mission to identify exoplanets. The findings are described in a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The Kepler Mission and the Search for Exoplanets

The Kepler mission, named after the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, was a NASA project aimed at understanding planetary systems throughout the Milky Way. The telescope, launched in 2009, observed a fixed patch of the sky for four years, tracking the brightness of 150,000 stars and searching for minute dips in brightness that would indicate an orbiting planet.

Despite its conclusion of operations in 2018, Kepler's dataset is still a valuable source of information for exoplanet research. The dataset is vast, and scientists are continually analyzing it to discover new planetary candidates and learn more about previously identified ones.

This latest discovery was made possible through the work of NASA astronomer Andrew Vanderburg and his team, who reanalyzed Kepler data taken between 2009 and 2011. Their focus was on Kepler-1649, a sun-like star located about 300 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

The Habitable Zone and Kepler-1649c

The habitable zone is a region around a star where an Earth-like planet could maintain temperatures that allow for liquid water on its surface. Vanderburg noted that Kepler-1649c is situated in the inner edge of its solar system's habitable zone, which means it's not too hot or cold for liquid water.

In contrast, Venus, which is closer to the Sun, is a cautionary example of a planet with a dense atmosphere that has caused it to become severely inhospitable to life through intense heating. Meanwhile, Mars, situated on the outer edge of the habitable zone, requires a thicker atmosphere to retain heat and potentially support liquid water.

According to Vanderburg, "It's not that Kepler-1649c is necessarily habitable. It's more like, 'this is a place you should look.' This is another arrow in the quiver of things that could be considered habitable."

Further Exploration and Theories

As Kepler-1649c is an Earth-sized exoplanet candidate, and one that could be within the habitable zone, it requires further exploration and study. Fortunately, NASA has a number of future missions planned that will pursue the search for habitable exoplanets and study them further.

The agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in 2018, is expected to identify thousands of exoplanets throughout the solar system, particularly those orbiting the nearest and brightest stars. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch in 2021, will be able to characterize the atmosphere of exoplanets, including those that are rocky and Earth-like.

NASA's next generation of flagship telescopes, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will also aid in the continued exploration of exoplanets. These telescopes will not only be able to detect and characterize exoplanets but will do so with a range of infrared wavelengths.

Implications for Life Beyond Earth

Scientists are drawn to planets that are similar in size to Earth and reside in the habitable zone of their parent stars because they are good candidates for the study of habitability and the potential for life. While Kepler-1649c is an exciting discovery, it's important to note that much about the planet remains unknown, and further research and exploration are needed to determine if life can exist there.

According to the researchers, "While KEPLER-1649c beckons us to venture farther into the galaxy to search for life, it also warns us of the high standards we should set for claiming detections of extraterrestrial life. We are now actively planning for the next steps in this exciting exploration."

As scientists continue to examine the Kepler dataset and plan for future missions, there's no doubt that discoveries of exoplanet candidates, especially those that are Earth-like and potentially habitable, will continue. The latest finding of Kepler-1649c is a pivotal one that underscores the importance of further exploration and the potential for discovering another Earth-like planet.

This discovery is sure to excite and inspire scientists and the public alike, as we continue to explore the possibilities of life beyond our solar system.

Photos: - NASA image of the Kepler Space Telescope in orbit. (Credit: NASA/Balloon Boy)

  • An artist's impression of the exoplanet Kepler-1649c in front of its parent star. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
  • An artist's representation of Kepler-1649c, an Earth-like exoplanet candidate in the habitable zone of its parent star. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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