Has humanity taken a step towards ditching this sorry planet and moving on to an all-new world? For so long it’s been the stuff of science-fiction, but the dream now seems that bit closer with the discovery of a new planet NASA is calling Earth 2.0.
Kepler-452b, as the planet has been labelled by the agency, is in a solar system very similar to our own and is the right distance from its star to potentially be habitable. The planet is 6bn years old, 60pc larger than Earth and receives 10pc more energy from its star, which is 1.5bn years older and 20pc brighter than our sun, though has the same temperature.
“Today we’re announcing the discovery of an exoplanet that as far as we can tell is a pretty close cousin of Earth,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, told journalists at a press conference earlier today (July 23). “It’s the closest so far.”
Kepler-452b’s 385-day orbit is only 5pc longer that Earth’s. While its mass and composition have yet to be determined, previous NASA research suggests that worlds this size have a good chance of being rocky.
Don’t pack your bags just yet, though. An Interstellar-like jaunt across the galaxy isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Kepler-452b is a whopping 1,400 light years away. To put that into perspective, Pluto is only five light hours away. “You and I probably won’t be travelling to these planets, but our children’s children’s children could be,” NASA’s Jeff Coughlin told journalists. “This gives us something to aim for.”
If my math is correct (probably isn’t) – it took 9 years to get to Pluto, which means it would take 550M years to get to Kepler452b. #Kepler
— Zach Bussey (@zachbussey) July 23, 2015
Unfortunately, the million-dollar question has yet to be answered. With the tools currently at NASA’s disposal, there’s no way to know right now if life exists on Kepler-452b.
“Signs of life require advanced technology and instruments that would probably have to be in orbit,” said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “What Kepler’s doing is telling us that there are worlds out there, and then we can follow up and look for biosignatures for signs of life with other tools.”
Getting a camera or probe to the planet, too, may prove tricky. Even if such an implement was able to travel close to the speed of light, it would take many decades to reach Kepler-452b. But we can learn a lot from telescopes, and NASA are hoping to next make some primitive maps of the new world.
This is an important discovery, but note it’s still incremental. We’re *closer* to finding an Earth “twin”, but not quite there yet.
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) July 23, 2015
“We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment,” Jenkins added in a statement. “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6bn years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”
The discovery of Kepler-452b, plus 11 other small habitable zone candidate planets, brings the total number of confirmed planets to 1,030.