AAS: The Firehose of Astronomy

This artist’s illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. A new analysis has determined the frequencies of planets of all sizes, from Earths up to gas giants. Key findings include the fact that one in six stars hosts an Earth-sized planet in an orbit of 85 days or less, and that almost all sun-like stars have a planetary system of some sort. (Hat tip to Robert Hurt for inspiring this illustration.)
Courtesy C. Pulliam & D. Aguilar (CfA)

Every January, I journey out to the American Astronomical Society for its annual Winter Meeting. And, every time, I’m amazed at new bit of information about the universe. Today’s revelation (and it’s only Day 1 of the meeting), is that the Milky Way Galaxy is populated with many planets — in fact, one team of scientists estimates that at least one out of every six stars in the galaxy has an Earth-sized planet.

That, my friends, is pretty profound.

If you postulate that the Milky Way has about a hundred billion stars, that means there are at least 17 BILLION Earth-sized planets in our galaxy. Again, that’s pretty profound. Now, the next question everybody will ask is, “How many of those are capable of supporting life?” And to answer that question requires a lot more observation. First, to support life, those planets need to be orbiting close enough to their stars that liquid water will be available to sustain life on them. Then, scientists need to look at the other conditions on the planets, and look for “bio signatures” in the planets’ atmospheres that indicate life could be there. So, even though there could be the potential for 17 billion Earth-sized worlds out there, that doesn’t say they are Earth-like… or that they have life. But, there are 17 BILLION Earth-sized worlds out there. Up until the last decade of the 20th century, we didn’t know of any.

Thanks to the Kepler Mission, which has been cranking out planetary candidate discoveries for some time now, the hunt for planets is now an understood and successful ongoing project.

Want to read more details about how the scientists came up with their numbers? Check it out here. And, stay tuned for more AAS news!

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