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Could we find life on Kepler-22b

Posted: December 9, 2011 3:41 p.m.
Updated: December 12, 2011 5:00 a.m.

If the data from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is right, there’s at least one planet with the potential of harboring life. Perhaps, based on the data, there are thousands upon thousands of such worlds.

This isn’t science fiction, this is theory based on scientific study, focusing on a planet some 600 light years (6 trillion miles) away designated Kepler-22b.

The news is so exciting, I found dozens of articles about it online and tagged 11 of them to look at. Even al-Jazeera, the Kuwaiti-based CNN-like cable channel and website, picked up on the story.

Here’s the scoop: NASA’s Ames Research Center in California has found a planet in the Kepler-22 system’s “Goldilocks,” or habitable, zone. Discovery News, describes a star’s habitable zone as “a region surrounding a star where its energy is just right for liquid water to exist on (a planet’s) surface.” Too close it turns to vapor; too far, it turns to ice. Since every star is a little different, each star’s Goldilocks zone is a little different.

Kepler-22b’s parent star is apparently very much like ours. Several of the websites I looked used a chart showing a comparison between Kepler-22b’s system and ours. The Sun’s habitable zone (which we’re in) is a little larger than Kepler-22’s. Also, Kepler-22b’s orbit seems just a little closer to its star than we are.

The bigger news is that Kepler-22b is, well, bigger than Earth -- about 2.4 times larger. The Kepler-22 system (and the previous 21, I gather) are named for the Kepler space telescope, now responsible for locating 2,326 potential planets, 29 of which (including Kepler-22b) are confirmed to actually exist, according to Discovery News. Of the more than 2,300 potentials, 54 (including the 29 confirmed planets) are in their systems’ habitable zones. Kepler-22b is the first of those 54 to be classified “confirmed.”

Yes, Virginia, there are other planets out there.

Even that much larger than Earth, it’s actually the smallest extra-solar planet Kepler’s discovered.

There’s a gorgeous rendering of what Kepler-22b might look like, created by NASA. It shows a primarily water planet with wispy clouds floating around. Ironically, though, and as nice as it is to look at, NASA actually has no idea what the planet looks like ... or what it’s made of.

But that’s all right, apparently.

“Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets,” NASA said in a press release.

In other words, is it like Earth, a tiny Neptune or something “new:” a completely liquid world of some kind?

Obviously, a tiny gas planet wouldn’t be very interesting to me unless it contains life-forms postulated by some scientists and science fiction writers.

A “giant-Earth” is another possibility: a planet made up much like ours with continents and oceans, only on a much larger (or greater) scale. I can’t remember the title for the life of me, but I remember reading a story long ago of life on such a planet, where distances between cities and country’s was mind-boggling vast.

That would, of course, be exciting since any beings capable of having any level of civilization (as we define it) could be something like us.

But the idea of a vast water world with some type of water-based civilization brings us to possibly different types of sentient life.

In either case, truly Earth-like or a giant water world - with islands, perhaps? -- are exciting prospects because of something I’ve said before and will repeat often: we need to get off this planet.

Earth’s population reached 7 billion this year; it’s predicted to reach 9 billion by 2042, which isn’t really that long away.

While I’m not a gloom-and-doom kind of guy, it still makes sense to ease the pressure on our home planet by expanding out into space. Not only do we want to meet friendly neighbors in space, we want to find new homes for humans to live.

That’s why Kepler-22b, despite its oh-so-boring scientific name, is so exciting.

According to Science magazine, scientists believe that -- if Kepler-22b has a surface like Earth’s -- it should have a nice surface temperature of 70 degrees. It’s also in the habitable zone. If the planet’s size is offset by some kind of different core so that gravity is close to what we experience (I don’t want to feel like 300-plus pounds when I’m not), then we will have finally found Earth’s first win, albeit a large one.

Any way you slice it, it’s exciting news even if it is just another step on the way to finding a planet that is truly Earth-like in every way.

If, as one website noted, there can be microbes in the Dead Sea, then life -- or the conditions to support life -- could exist on Kepler-22b.

The discovery opens up a universe of possibilities: that we are not alone; that we could become part of a greater civilization; and that we could expand into space, giving us a greater chance to survive as a species.

I love what Jill Tarter of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute told Science: that if we find life on a second planet, then it must be widespread.

“In this field, the number two is important. We count one, two, infinity.”

And beyond.

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