Three Earth-Like Planets Discovered That Could Possibly Support Life: Are Scientists One Step Closer To Finding A New World?

By Gopi Chandra Kharel on April 19, 2013 2:11 AM EDT

New Earth-Like Planets Found
Relative sizes of all of the habitable-zone planets discovered to date alongside Earth. Left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth (Photo: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.)

Scientists claim that they are one step closer to finding a world similar to the Earth revolving around a star like our Sun after NASA's Kepler mission discovered three new planets that could possibly have liquid water.

Using Kepler space telescope which assists scientists in finding Earth-size planets in parts of the galaxy, they found two new planetary systems that include three planets with similar size of the Earth.  Scientists found them in "habitable zone", in which the distance between the star and the planet leave the planets with temperature that might be suitable for liquid water or life altogether.

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The two new planetary systems discovered have been named as Kepler-62 (which has five planets) and Kepler-69 (which has two planets) while the associated individual planets have been designated by letter thereafter. Two planets found suitable for life are part of the Kepler-62 system - Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. The third one is part of Kepler-69 planetary system called Kepler-69c.

The exoplanet closest to the size of the Earth which is within the habitable zone of another star is Kepler-62f. Scientists say the planet is only 40 percent larger than Earth. It is likely to have a rocky composition. The other planet orbiting the same star, Kepler-62e, is said to be roughly 60 percent larger than the Earth and orbits on the inner edge of the habitable zone. These two "habitable zone worlds" orbit a star referred to as K2 dwarf which is just two-thirds the size of the sun and only one-fifth as bright.

The third planet, Kepler-69c, is said to be 70 percent larger than the size of the Earth, and orbits in the habitable zone of a star which belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type. Located 2,700 light-years away from the Earth, it is 93 percent the size of the Sun and 80 percent as bright.

The star supporting the Kepler-62 system is seven billion years old making it somewhat older than the Sun and is located at a distance of 1,200 light-years from the Earth.

Scientists are uncertain if life could really exist on the newly discovered planets, but they say that it marks a step towards finding whether or not we are indeed the lone planet supporting life in the entire universe or we have other "worlds" out there.

"The Kepler spacecraft has certainly turned out to be a rock star of science," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said. "The discovery of these rocky planets in the habitable zone brings us a bit closer to finding a place like home. It is only a matter of time before we know if the galaxy is home to a multitude of planets like Earth, or if we are a rarity."

In NASA's first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our Sun, the Kepler Space telescope measures the brightness of more than 150,000 starts continuously in a bid to finding hints for habitable Earth-like planets in the galaxy.

When a planet candidate passes in front of a star, the telescope can detect a percentage of light from the star being blocked. The resulting dip in the brightness of the star is used to calculate the transiting planet's size in relation to its star. Using this method, Kepler has detected 2,740 "candidates".

Scientists' search for finding life outside the Earth will continue while only time can say how far they will go in bringing a definitive answer to this mystery.

"Kepler has brought a resurgence of astronomical discoveries and we are making excellent progress toward determining if planets like ours are the exception or the rule," said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

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