The past 30 days have been fun. It started exactly one month ago today when NASA announced the discovery of 11 solar systems that host 26 planets.
According to NASA, 15 of the planets are between the size of Earth and Neptune. Other than that, we don’t really know much. It’s going to take some more time to determine whether the planets are rocky like Earth, or gaseous like Neptune.
“Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky,” according to this release. “Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates.”
The artist's rendering depicts the multiple planet systems discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. Image credit: NASA Ames/Jason Steffen, Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics
Yes, we all know that NASA’s Kepler mission is amazing. In fact, it’s probably my favorite all-time mission. It has found some fascinating planets, but this discovery was a bit lackluster (besides the announcement’s power-in-numbers factor).
It seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I didn’t read a lot of stories about it. Or maybe I’m just missing a lot. I have been burning the midnight oil at my new job. Ok, Ok. I don’t want to knock the discovery because it is pretty cool, but as we’ve been realizing more and more lately, there are probably billions of billions of planets out there. And I just can’t wait until they find the BIG one.
Then, not even a week later, it happened. Scientists found another super-Earth. (A planet with a mass similar to our planet.)
Not only was the mass similar, but the planet – found orbiting a triple star system in the constellation of Scorpius – is located smack in the middle of the habitable zone, according to my handy Exoplanet App. The habitable zone – or the “Goldilocks zone” – is a place where it’s not too hot or too cold. It’s a region where liquid water could exist.
The planet is called Gliese 667Cc. If the planet, “has a rocky surface—which is predicted for planets less than ten times Earth’s mass—and an atmosphere, it could support liquid water and maybe life” according to this National Geographic article.
This image shows to scale the only four potential habitable exoplanets so far, HD 85512 b, Gliese 581 d, Kepler-22 b, and Gliese 667C c compared with Earth and Mars using the Earth Similarity Index, or ESI (number below the names). This number is a measure of Earth-likeness where Earth is the standard of comparison with an ESI value equal to one. Exoplanets with values above 0.8 can be considered Earth-like planets but those with values down to about 0.7 might still be habitable by microbial life. HD 85512 b, Gliese 581 d, and Kepler-22 b are shown here with dense atmospheres covered with water clouds. Gliese 581 d and Gliese 667C c look redder because they orbit red dwarf stars. Caption and image courtesy of The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo.
The last time we heard about a super-Earth, it wasn’t without controversy.
But this planet is getting some play. The guys over at the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) are including it in its “Current Potential Habitable Worlds” chart. It ranks #2!
“Gliese 667C c is the best candidate so far of an Earth-like exoplanet,” according to the PHL.
Comparison of the current four potential habitable worlds with Earth and Mars using the Earth Similarity Index (ESI), a measure of Earth-likeness. Gliese 667C c is the best candidate so far of an Earth-like exoplanet. CREDIT: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.
That is pretty awesome.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we hear news of a planet unlike anything scientists have ever seen before – at least according to this article.
A new class of planet has emerged: A water world covered with a thick, steamy atmosphere. It’s larger than Earth and has much more water, but much less rock. The planet, called GJ 1214b, is located about 40 light-years from Earth.
GJ1214b, shown in this artist’s view, is a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. New observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope show that it is a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. Caption and rendering courtesy of NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
“The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’, substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience,” according to the release.
It’s only a matter of time before we find … the one. Happy planet hunting!