November 5, 2013 in Nation/World

Billions and billions of planets may be habitable by humans

Seth Borenstein Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

This artist’s rendition provided by NASA shows Kepler-69c, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star like our sun, located about 2,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Space is vast, but it may not be so lonely after all: A study finds the Milky Way is teeming with billions of planets that are about the size of Earth, orbit stars just like our sun, and exist in the Goldilocks zone – not too hot and not too cold for life.

Astronomers using NASA data have calculated for the first time that in our galaxy alone, there are at least 8.8 billion stars with Earth-size planets in the habitable temperature zone.

The study was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For perspective, that’s more Earth-like planets than people on Earth.

As for what it says about the odds that there is life somewhere out there, it means “just in our Milky Way galaxy alone, that’s 8.8 billion throws of the biological dice,” said study co-author Geoff Marcy, a longtime planet hunter from the University of California at Berkeley.

The next step, scientists say, is to look for atmospheres on these planets with powerful space telescopes that have yet to be launched. That would yield further clues to whether any of these planets do, in fact, harbor life.

The findings also raise a blaring question, Marcy said: If we aren’t alone, why is “there a deafening silence in our Milky Way galaxy from advanced civilizations?”

In the Milky Way, about 1 in 5 stars that are like our sun in size, color and age have planets that are roughly Earth’s size and are in the habitable zone where life-crucial water can be liquid, according to intricate calculations based on four years of observations from NASA’s now-crippled Kepler telescope.

If people on Earth could only travel in deep space, “you’d probably see a lot of traffic jams,” Bill Borucki, NASA’s chief Kepler scientist, joked Monday.

The Kepler telescope peered at 42,000 stars, examining just a tiny slice of our galaxy to see how many planets like Earth are out there. Scientists then extrapolated that figure to the rest of the galaxy, which has hundreds of billions of stars.

For the first time, scientists calculated – not estimated – what percent of stars that are just like our sun have planets similar to Earth: 22 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Because there are probably hundreds of planets missed for every one found, the study did intricate extrapolations to come up with the 22 percent figure, a calculation that outside scientists say is fair.

“Everything they’ve done looks legitimate,” MIT astronomer Sara Seager said.

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