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.

More exoplanets

They keep findin’ ’em.

In the search for Earth-like planets, astronomers zeroed in Tuesday on two places that look awfully familiar to home. One is close to the right size. The other is in the right place.

European researchers said they not only found the smallest exoplanet ever, called Gliese 581 e, but realized that a neighboring planet discovered earlier, Gliese 581 d, was in the prime habitable zone for potential life.

While Gliese 581 e is too hot for life “it shows that nature makes such small planets, probably in large numbers,” Marcy commented. “Surely the galaxy contains tens of billions of planets like the small, Earth-mass one announced here.”

I don’t think most people recognize the significance of science like this. Scientists will never find themselves short of planets to observe. Our small, insignificant star has 8 planets around it. Assuming the average star has only 1 planet in its orbit, that’s still trillions of planets. The number is probably less than 1 per star, I’d guess, but who knows? It’s at least certainly unfathomably high. A small fraction per star would still yield a huge number; there are more stars in the Universe than grains of sands on all the beaches of Earth. Not enough people appreciate that fact.