On July 23rd NASA announced that the Kepler mission discovered a planet with the most Earth-like conditions found to date. Officially named Kepler-452b, it has grabbed the attention of many. This discovery comes shortly after Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner declared a $100 million hunt for alien life, sparking an internet craze over new hope and interest for space exploration.
There are several similarities between Earth and Kepler-452b. The exoplanet is about 1.5 times the size of Earth, about twice the weight, and is likely to be rocky. It falls under what is called the ‘habitable zone’ which is the area estimated by scientists to have the highest chance of possible extraterrestrial life. Kepler-452b’s orbit is very similar to Earth’s, with an orbital period of 385 days compared to our 365. Kepler-452b is about 6 billion years old, slightly older Earth. The star which it orbits is very similar to our sun, with Kepler-452b receiving about 10% more energy than us.
Most of the public interest is focused on the possibility of an ‘Earth 2.0’ which could one day host our ever growing population. Though the idea is enticing, the possibility is small. Kepler-452b is about 1,400 light years away. Our current space probes would take about 26 million years to reach it. Considering this, it’s not probable that we will have the technology to send humanity to explore this planet. And if we ever do, by that time there will have been more Earth-like worlds found, and probably some that are closer.
The possibility of alien life is much higher. With all of the similarities it has with Earth, it is quite possible that life could (and possibly may) inhabit the planet. The habitable zone is determined by the approximate distance from the sun at which a planet could have liquid water. Planets too close to a star can’t hold liquid water because it all evaporates, while planets too far are completely frozen. The weight similarity is promising because it’s gravity is big enough to hold water to the surface.
As important as this discovery is to furthering scientific knowledge and the chance of finding alien life, it also has done an excellent job to capture the internet audience while competing with all other streams of information on the web. Making science popular among the general public will benefit the future in many ways.