Kepler-452b is our greatest hope yet for finding ET
With every new discovery in the hunt for life outside of our solar system, it seems we’re inching closer to meeting our extraterrestrial counterparts. Many people feel they must be out there — as special as we like to think we are, space is far too old and vast to harbor just us Earthlings.
A paper published July 23 in The Astronomical Journal delves into the discovery of Kepler-452b, a planet 1,400 light years away orbiting a star in its habitable zone. Scientists identified the planet by combing through the data collected by NASA’s Kepler Mission between May 2009 to May 2013.
The Kepler Mission took photos in a 115-by-115-degree field of view near the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, observing 111,800 stars continuously and more than 200,000 stars total.
Kepler-452b sounds eerily similar to Earth in many ways. It’s about 20 percent larger, 33 percent older and five percent farther from its own sun than we are from ours. Its orbital period is approximately once every 384 days, which is close to our 365 and is noted in the paper as “the longest orbital period for a small transiting exoplanet to date.” As of this writing, around 1,500 exoplanets have been discovered.
The scientists also place the likelihood that the planet is rocky like Earth and not a gas planet like Jupiter and Saturn at between 49 and 62 percent — meaning there’s a good chance that Kepler-452b actually has a surface that life can attach to and live upon.
With these planets at such great distances, astronomers discover them not by observing the planets themselves, but indirectly by tracking the brightness of a star over a certain period. If the star’s brightness dips even slightly, that indicates a planet is likely passing in front of it.
The next stage in the “Are we alone?” search is to determine whether the planet orbits within the star’s habitable zone, which is the temperate region around a star where liquid water would be able to form and pool on a moon or planet.
At the time the paper was published, nine planets captured within the Kepler data were found to be close to or within their respective stars’ habitable zones.
If there is intelligent life on Kepler-452b, we have no possible way to visit. Even travel at the speed of light would take 1,400 years to get there. Perhaps the enticing planet’s residents are much more advanced and have a way to get here quickly. If so, let’s hope they come in peace!
Aug. 12, 13: Perseids meteor shower. This treat of a meteor shower is one of the best, producing up to 60 bright meteors per hour at its peak. The shower runs every year from July 17 to Aug. 24 as Earth passes through a comet trail and peaks this year on the night of Aug. 12 into the morning of Aug. 13. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Luckily the moon that night will be just a sliver of a crescent. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Perseus (located within a triangle formed by Casseopeia, the Pleiades and the very bright star Capella) but can appear anywhere in the sky.
Aug. 14: New moon. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters — and to look for stray Perseid meteors!
Aug. 29: Full moon. This is the first of three supermoons for 2015. The moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.