Astronomers find biggest ever haul of potential habitable planets

7 Jan 2015

An artist's conception depicts an Earth-like planet orbiting an evolved star that has formed a stunning 'planetary nebula'. Image via David A Aguilar

In what has become the biggest find to date of habitable distant planets, astronomers have discovered eight new worlds in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone that could potentially harbour life.

However, two planets in particular, designated Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, have caught the attention of the researchers as both orbit red dwarf suns that produce less heat than our own sun.

In order for a planet to be considered in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, it must have the combination of a rocky surface and enough solar radiation and light that would allow for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.

Life on planets Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b?

Located 438m light years away, Kepler-438b has been found to have the two key ingredients for potential life, with a 70pc chance that the planet is rocky. Astronomers have also estimated the planet has a 70pc chance of being able to harbour life, because it receives 40pc more light than Earth.

Meanwhile, Kepler-442b is just over one-third larger than Earth, with a possibility of being a rocky planet placed at 60pc. Kepler-442b receives about 75pc of the light of Earth, giving it a 97pc chance of being able to harbour life.

The team members from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found these new planets using a computer program called BLENDER, and they spent a year analysing data using high-resolution spectroscopy, adaptive optics imaging, and speckle interferometry.

David Kipping, the second author of the paper on the discovery, said, “We don’t know for sure whether any of the planets in our sample are truly habitable. All we can say is that they’re promising candidates.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic