Most Earth-like planets have yet to be ‘born’, NASA says

20 Oct 2015

An artist's illustration of one potential Earth-like planet, Kepler 20-f. Image via NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to the discovery of potential Earth-like planets, Earth was rather early to the party, it seems, with new NASA research suggesting that the vast majority of planets similar to our own have yet to be ‘born’.

Organisations such as SETI have spent their entire existence searching the universe for the existence of Earth-like planets that could harbour life, and some groups have even suggested recently the existence of an alien megastructure surrounding a distant star.

But now, according to research by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in the US, the chances of us finding a planet with vast oceans, habitable atmosphere and intelligent life have gotten significantly smaller.

In fact, the study, led by Peter Behroozi, suggests that at the birth of our solar system 4.6bn years ago, only 8pc of the potentially habitable planets that will ever form in the universe existed.

The remaining 92pc of the potential habitable planets will only likely become active sometime after our planet burns up when the sun’s life comes to an end in 6bn years time.

Another 6bn years to go

This data was gathered using a combination of the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes, which have effectively looked back in time to reveal that the universe was producing stars at an incredible rate 10bn years ago, but that there is still enough material left to continue producing stars and planets for aeons to come.

Previous readings from the Kepler Space Telescope suggest that, in the Milky Way alone, there could exist 1bn Earth-sized planets, which when you consider that there are 100bn galaxies in the visible universe, leaves good odds for Earth-like planets.

“Our main motivation was understanding the Earth’s place in the context of the rest of the universe,” Behroozi said. “Compared to all the planets that will ever form in the universe, the Earth is actually quite early.”

Before the potential last star burnout 100trn years in the future (yeah, try and get your head around that), future Earth-like planets will likely appear in giant galaxy clusters that still have vast reserves of star-building gases.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic