Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.
While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.
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Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.
“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”
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Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. On the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.
“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has,” said Thomas Barclay, research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”
The discovery paper, “An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star”, is unfortunately gated, but data seems to be consistent. The planet’s star, Kepler-186, a relatively bright red dwarf a bit less than half the mass of our sun, is not very different Lalande 21185, a nearby star itself often suspected of hosting planets.
The Planetary Habitability Laboratory’s press release notes that the world is likely not very Earth-like, in that if it had an Earth-like atmosphere it would be very cold.
Kepler-186f has a similar size to Earth and it is most likely a rocky world. It orbits the M-dwarf star Kepler-186 along with four other inner planets, which are as old as the Solar System (>4 Gyr), in the constellation Cygnus 500 light years away. Kepler-186f receives less stellar flux (~32%) than presently does Mars (~43%). It could have a temperate climate if it has an atmosphere much denser than Earth. Even Earth probably experienced at least one episode of global glaciation with just a slightly lower stellar flux than today, 650 million years ago. However, early Mars had running surface liquid water with a similar stellar flux as Kepler-186f.
Kepler-186f was added to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog with a low Earth Similarity Index (ESI) of 0.64 due to its potential colder climate. Still, it could be a more Earth-like world if it is experiencing a much higher greenhouse effect than Earth. Nevertheless, Kepler-186f is also the best candidate now of a rocky world in the habitable zone compared to the other known potentially habitable worlds.
Still, this is a remarkable discovery, and an evocative one too. I can imagine a world of cold glacial seas, one side permanently under its reddish sun and the other locked away. What else might be there? Examining the world’s atmosphere for potential signs of life–free oxygen, perhaps–is a must for the next generation of exoplanet researchers.