Our Galaxy Might Be Home to 10 Billion Earth-Like Planets


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The Milky Way galaxy is enormous, and we’ve scanned only the tiniest fraction of it in search of planets. We’ve spotted a few thousand of them orbiting distant stars, and now a team of researchers from Penn State University has used that data to estimate the number of Earth-like exoplanets in the entire galaxy — they peg that number between 5 and 10 billion. That’s a lot of places to look for alien life. 

Of course, we can’t know for certain how many Earth-like exoplanets exist, nor can we even say for certain what “Earth-like” means in other solar systems. For the purposes of this study, the team took Earth-like to mean a planet between three-quarters and 1.5 times the size of Earth with an orbital period between 237 and 500 days. 

The researchers started their calculations with data from the Kepler Space Telescope. During its nine-year mission, Kepler identified more than 2,600 exoplanets using the transit method. It watched groups of stars for small dips in light that suggest planets passing in front of them. Kepler demonstrated that many solar systems are similar to our own, but the detection methods favored larger planets orbiting close to a star because they produce more discernible drops in light. To fill in the gaps, the team used data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. 

Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets during its mission.

Gaia launched in 2013 to create the most accurate 3D map of the galaxy possible. The goal of the project is to determine the locations of more than 1 billion celestial objects. To estimate the number of Earth-like planets, the team used Kepler and Gaia data to create simulated universes and then “observed” those simulated stars like Kepler would have. Since they knew the true number of planets in the simulation, that gave the researchers a sense of how many exoplanets Kepler would have missed in the real world. 

Naturally, there’s a great deal of uncertainty in this estimation, which is why the range is so huge. The best case is 10 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, but that doesn’t mean all of them have life or even a habitable environment — they could have corrosive clouds and crushing atmospheric pressure like Venus and still count as “Earth-like” by the metrics used in the study. The team, therefore, recommends that future missions aiming to find Earth-like planets should plan on seeing them orbiting one in every 33 sun-like stars at minimum. However, it’s possible about half of those stars have at least one Earth-like planet. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope might be able to find exoplanets that back up this claim when it launches (we hope) in 2021.

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New Analysis of Kepler Data Finds Hundreds of New Exoplanets


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The Kepler Space Telescope ended its wildly successful planet-hunting mission last year, but it’s still making discoveries from the grave. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has since taken up the planet-hunter banner, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s on the same level as Kepler. The gap between the probes just got wider, too. A new analysis of data from Kepler has revealed hundreds of potential new exoplanets. 

Kepler launched in 2009 on a three and a half year mission to find distant worlds. NASA is used to missions operating long past their expected lifespan, but Kepler started experiencing issues in 2012. The spacecraft used the transit method of detecting exoplanets — it watched stars for telltale dips in brightness as planets passed in front of them. That meant Kepler had to remain pointed at the same region for long periods of time, but two of its four reaction wheels failed by mid-2013. 

NASA was able to restore Kepler to partial functionality in 2014 by stabilizing it with photons reflecting off its solar panels. This “K2” mission yielded more data and exoplanets, but much of that data is “messy” and hard to interpret. Enter, Ethan Kruse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Kruse and his team devised a new method of processing the K2 data using Quasiperiodic Automated Transit Search (QATS) and EPIC Variability Extraction and Removal for Exoplanet Science Targets (EVEREST). The processing helps reduce the noisy arcs and curves in the K2 data. The result is many, many new exoplanet signals. 

NASA's K2 balancing act

NASA’s K2 balancing act gave the spacecraft a new lease on life after two unexpected reaction wheel failures.

This is not the first analysis of K2 data, so not all of the 818 planets detected in the study are new. However, an impressive 374 of the signals have not been detected previously. Of those, 154 are what’s known as reciprocally transiting planets. That means they transit their stars from our perspective on Earth, and Earth does the same from those planets. So, there could be alien astronomers running a similar experiment wondering if Earth supports life. The data points to worlds of various sizes from super-Earths to gas giants, and there are 87 multi-planet systems. 

Currently, all the objects listed in the new analysis are mere “candidate” exoplanets. Another team will have to go and check each signal to confirm. In the future, astronomers may be able to use the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope to take a closer look at some of these planetary systems. For now, most of the verification will take place at large ground-based observatories.

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