Exciting expectations: NASA finds planet in habitable zone

The Universe is enormous. Just enormous. It isn’t possible to truly grasp the scope of space out in…space. There are literally more stars – far more stars, in fact – in the Universe than there are grains of sands on all the beaches and in all the oceans of Earth. It’s really mind-boggling. But that mind-bogglitude (yeah, “bogglitude”) does lead to a few things that are comprehensible and expected. Enter NASA’s recent discovery:

NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has confirmed the discovery of its first alien world in its host star’s habitable zone — that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist — and found more than 1,000 new explanet candidates, researchers announced today (Dec. 5)…

The potentially habitable alien world, a first for Kepler, orbits a star very much like our own sun. The discovery brings scientists one step closer to finding a planet like our own — one which could conceivably harbor life, scientists said.

“We’re getting closer and closer to discovering the so-called ‘Goldilocks planet,'” Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said during a press conference today.

This is certainly exciting, but it is also practically expected. With the billions and billions of galaxies out there, along with the trillions and trillions of stars and planets, there is bound to be more than a few balls of rock that are very, very similar to Earth. Moreover, not only is our galaxy quite common, but so is our solar system. We have an average star with an average array of planets. There isn’t anything special or privileged about our location. To believe otherwise is to be deluded or desperate or tremendously small-minded. We’re going to see many more Earth-like planets in the coming years.

I expect the future findings of NASA to be very exciting indeed.

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First glimpse of exoplanet atmosphere

Two separate teams of scientists reported Wednesday the first-ever detection from Earth of the atmosphere of planets outside our solar system.

Taken together, the studies open a new frontier in the study of exoplanets, hard-to-detect celestial bodies circling stars beyond our own solar system.

Barely 300 exoplanets — some of which may have conditions similar to those that gave rise to life on Earth — have been identified so far, though astronomers assume that far more are waiting to be discovered.

Up to now, virtually everything known about the atmosphere of exoplanets has come from data collected by the space-based Spitzer infrared telescope.

But Spitzer will soon run out of the cryogens needed to keep its instruments cool, severely limiting its capabilities.

One team spotted a massive planet many times the size of Earth named OGLE-TR-56b, a so-called “hot Jupiter.”

Hot Jupiters are massive planets — many times the size of Earth — that orbit very close to their stars. Because they are so near, they are believed to be hot enough to emit radiation in optical and near-infrared wavelengths that would be visible from Earth.

“The successful recipe is a planet that emits a lot of heat and has little-to-no wind in its atmosphere,” said co-author Mercedes Lozez-Morales of the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C.

In addition, it must be a clear and calm night on Earth in order accurately measure the differences in thermal emissions when the exoplanet is eclipsed as it goes behind the star.

“The eclipse allows us to separate the emissions of the planet from those of the star,” she said in a statement.