It’s truly a “eureka” moment for Kepler scientists: the first rocky Earth-sized world has been found in a star’s habitable “Goldilocks” zone, the narrow belt where liquid water could readily exist on a planet’s surface without freezing solid or boiling away. And while it’s much too soon to tell if this really is a “twin Earth,” we can now be fairly confident that they do in fact exist.
The newly-confirmed extrasolar planet has been dubbed Kepler-186f. It is the fifth and outermost planet discovered orbiting the red dwarf star Kepler-186, located 490 light-years away. Kepler-186f completes one orbit around its star every 130 days, just within the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone.
The findings were made public today, April 17, during a teleconference hosted by NASA.
“This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” says lead author Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center. “Finding such planets is a primary goal of the Kepler space telescope. The star is a main-sequence M-dwarf, a very common type. More than 70 percent of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy are M-dwarfs.”
Unlike our Sun, which is a G-type yellow dwarf, M-dwarf stars (aka red dwarfs) are much smaller and dimmer. As a result their habitable zones are much more confined. But, being cooler stars, M-dwarfs have long lifespans, offering planets in their habitable zones — like Kepler-186f — potentially plenty of time to develop favorable conditions for life.
In addition, M-dwarfs are the most abundant stars in our galaxy; 7 out of 10 stars in the Milky Way are M-dwarfs, although most can’t be seen by the naked eye. Finding an Earth-sized planet orbiting one relatively nearby has enormous implications in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
The ramifications of this discovery are truly awe-inspiring.
Hat tip: BadBlue Tech News.