Since the early days of space discovery, man has hoped for the evidence that proved we’re not alone in the universe. The more we discovered, the more certain it seemed that life had to exist outside of ourselves; some would go so far as to call it a mathematical certainty.
In July 2015, scientists finally may have shown us that proof.
A new exoplanet known as Kepler-452b has been discovered orbiting a sun very similar to our own. This planet is believed to exist in the “Goldilocks zone,” circling its star at just the right distance for life to thrive. If early indications are correct, the rocky world NASA experts have dubbed Earth 2.0 could be the clue we’ve needed to unlock the mysteries of alien life.
So just what is this new planet, and what does it mean for our understanding of space? Are we going to be able to contact or even visit this planet someday? And what can we learn about the future of our own planet from Kepler-452b’s history?
Discovering new planets
The Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009 by the NASA Discovery program with a very special mission: to record the position and brightness of as many stars in our galaxy as possible, monitoring them for changes that could identify new worlds in space.
The telescope allows astronomers to get a whole new view of our galaxy, removing the limitations that ground-based and fixed telescopes have.
So far, the orbiting lens has captured a huge range of valuable data and identified thousands of new planets, but Kepler-452b is its most notable discovery by far. By monitoring the Milky Way and tracking each star’s light output, scientists were able to identify changes in brightness as planets and other objects passed by.
Through careful calculations based on what we already know about planetary behaviors, and following ongoing observation to confirm any theories, NASA has been able to confidently announce that the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial life just got a whole lot better.
What can we learn from this new planet?
Kepler-452b is one of a handful of recently discovered planets that offers a new perspective on our own home. As older planet, we might be able to learn from it what will happen to us in the future. Much of the detail we have right now is based on speculation and theory, but the likelihood of being right is high.
Although we won’t be visiting it in our lifetime, it might not be too farfetched to suggest that others might. One day, humans may even live there permanently. Jeff Coughlin of California’s SETI Institute said that Earth 2.0 “gives us something to aim for.”
Below are some of the most amazing facts about Kepler-452b so far. Based on our existing knowledge of our own solar system and the probability of similar conditions existing elsewhere, this potential candidate for housing life is a place you need to know about.
The 10 things you need to know about Kepler-452b
1. It’s the most significant of 12 recently discovered ‘habitable’ planets
As mentioned previously, the Kepler Space Telescope has been very busy. This breakthrough technology monitors a staggering 150,000 stars, any of which could host a solar system with conditions similar to our own. So far the program has identified well over 1,000 planets along with 4,696 planetary candidates; that’s a lot of information to work through!
There have been several notable discoveries by the telescope in recent years: Kepler-22b and Kepler-20e were spotted in December 2011, while Kepler-186f was identified back in April 2014. In total, twelve planets have been found to exist inside the “habitable zone,” an area close enough but not too far from the sun.
Kepler-452b stands apart from the rest due to its size and its orbit; it has multiple Earth-like factors that suggest life could exist there.
2. The planet’s orbit and year length are almost identical to ours
We’re taught from a young age that Earth is unique within our solar system because of its distance from the sun. This position in space has allowed life to appear and be sustained, and so far no life has been discovered in other parts of the universe.
But beyond our own neighbors, there are countless other suns with their own planets orbiting them; it seems logical to assume that other places exist with the right conditions for life.
The discovery of Kepler-452b is the closest indication that this assumption is true. Investigations into its orbit reveal that one year equals 385 Earth days, so we can assume that it sees similar days and nights to us.
It also follows a similar orbit path to our own planet, maintaining a steady path that allows for a consistent temperature range. If it is true that our distance from the Sun determines our ability to survive, then Kepler-452b is on course to have—or have had—inhabitants of its own.
3. Kepler-452b is much older than the Sun
Although things are very much the same, Kepler-452b and its planets are much older than Earth and our Sun. The star has been burning for an estimated 6.2 billion years; for perspective, the first humans appeared just 2.5 million years ago! This gives scientists a unique opportunity to study our own world. If conditions on Kepler-452b are indeed as similar to ours as they seem, then we can get a glimpse into our likely future and see how our star and our planet will behave.
Because of its old age, the sun on Kepler-452b will be warmer and brighter than our own. It should still appear the same in the sky due to the distance–perhaps a little bigger, but not dramatically so. The sky itself may even appear blue like our own if the atmosphere is clear enough for good visibility.
This aging star will be experiencing a few problems as it uses more energy to sustain itself; solar flares are much more likely, and scientists estimate that it is putting out between 10 percent and 20 percent more energy than the Sun. At around 10 percent bigger, it has a much warmer climate.
4. Gravity is twice as strong–in theory, people could adapt to life there
The planet itself has a larger diameter than Earth and is pulled toward a larger sun, so gravity is estimated to be about twice as strong on Kepler-452b. Humans would find this difficult if they landed there–but not impossible. Scientists estimate that within four or five generations, humans would actually start to adapt to the new conditions and develop heavier bones and denser muscles to cope with moving around.
Even those first arriving could manage if they were fit and strong, though walking a few paces could feel like an extreme workout. You’d be exerting a lot of energy fighting that extra gravity, so your body would need many more calories each day. Life on Earth 2.0 might actually allow you to eat as much as you liked while still staying in shape!
Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate states:
If we were there, we’d get stronger. Our bones would actually get stronger. It would be like a workout every day.
Although it’s unlikely that we’ll make it to Kepler-452b to see if we could withstand the gravity there, precise calculations and G-force experiments do give scientists a good indication as to how the human body would react to changes in gravity.
We can assume, based on what we already know if people did land there, we’d be able to get out of the spacecraft and take a look around at the new world.
5. Kepler-452b is probably a rocky, volcano-strewn landscape
If you want to imagine what Kepler-452b is like, you can get a good idea based on NASA’s predictions. They’ve worked out that because of its size and shape, the planet has a 60 percent probability of being rocky. Another possibility is that Kepler-452b is a gas-based planet, but these are rare within the habitable zone. The rock is probably formed from lava, as volcanoes will be common in the warmer, more volatile environment.
If predictions about climate and the molten crust are correct, the air is likely to be very dense and cloudy as the volcanoes erupt frequently. There may be storms from the rising heat, and the climate is more likely to be consistently hot than variable by season.
That’s not to say that it will look recognizably like Earth; the many different variables that led to the planet’s origin and development could lead to vastly unique landscapes that we haven’t encountered before. But based on what we know about our own solar system, we can take an educated guess toward the way Kepler-452b is likely to look.
6. Water may exist or have existed on Kepler-452b
A fundamental difference between the 452b discovery and other planets in this zone is the possibility that water could exist there. We know that water is crucial to life existing in our own world, and it seems probable that this condition exists throughout the universe.
So far, no planet has been discovered to currently have water, though it is widely speculated that many once did. Based on its position, size and orbit, is it possible that water exists on Kepler-452b? If not, could it once have?
The same conditions could exist in this location as our own Earth, so liquid water is definitely a possibility. Ice is unlikely due to the heat from the warmer star, although too much heat could have already caused water loss from the planet. Scientists will be able to track the orbit of Kepler-452b much more closely to determine the odds of water having existed there, based on ongoing fluctuations as the years pass.
It is thought that Kepler-452b will be suffering the effects of a warmer, brighter sun; if it does have water currently, then it may not last forever. The chance of finding large oceans is unlikely, but leading scientists agree that lakes or pools of mineral-filled wet sediment or even liquid water could exist on the exoplanet’s surface.
The fact that water could exist heavily implies that life could be sustained there: Humans may be able to find water should they ever be able to land there, and this could be used to support a new civilization. In the search for existing life, the discovery of water would lend itself heavily to the possibility that we are not alone in the universe, or even in the galaxy.
7. Scientists believe plant life from Earth could thrive there
The placement of this planet means that it has the same access to light that the Earth has. This amount of light is what our plants need in order to survive, and if the similarities between us and Kepler-452b are accurate, then plant life could also do rather well there.
The extra light and brightness could see tropical and desert plants thrive, and presuming the raw materials to plant these species exist on arrival, humans could introduce new life to this part of space.
We don’t know what the soil quality on Kepler-452b would be like, but we do know how hardy plants can be and how quick they adapt. There are desert species which survive for decades with no water and in intense heat, and these could take well to a new atmosphere and climate. In theory, introducing wildlife species could also be highly successful, based on animals’ ability to evolve and adapt to their circumstances.
Along with humans, plants and animals would need to get used to the increased gravity on Kepler-452b, which could cause some interesting changes through generations. New species may even develop as a result of the new environment. Much of what could be is speculation, but based on what we already know this planet, it could be the answer to questions we all have about space.
8. This is the closest we’ve come to discovering new life in space
As well as considering that we could move ourselves to Kepler-452b, there’s also a very real possibility that life already exists there. Many people believe with absolute certainty that alien life exists, though others are yet to be convinced.
Kepler-452b is the closest we’ve come yet to finding a planet with conditions similar to our own. We all agree that our world’s unique set of circumstances are what allow us to live and keep on living; our world is unlike anything we’ve ever seen elsewhere in space. But opinion is divided over whether anyone else could also be out there.
Scientists have worked tirelessly for decades to find the clue that points toward the answer. From UFO sightings and tales of “close encounters,” to space expeditions and astronomical research, the quest for life outside has continued in many forms. NASA Discovery’s new planet could be the closest thing to an answer we’ve ever uncovered.
That “Goldilocks zone”–not too close, not too far–does have other planets existing in it. There are many, many stars which have planets orbiting in the range where life is possible. Kepler-452b stands apart from them all, having the right combination of features: The distance, the orbit, the size and the density all suggest that this is the most Earth-like world ever found. If this is indeed true, the odds of life existing there are much higher than anywhere else we know about so far.
9. Kepler-452b could teach us about the greenhouse effect
As the star supporting Kepler-452b starts to use up its resources, the planet itself is likely to be experiencing changes. A bigger, brighter sun will add extra heat to the planet, creating dry and barren landscapes. Days are likely longer than nights, and the atmosphere could be dense and thick.
If the planet continues to heat up, any hope of life will become reduced. This should give scientists a closer look into the behavior of stars at the end of their lives and prepare us for the possibility that our own planet may be facing this future.
Water and life may have existed on Kepler-452b, but they also may no longer be there. The conditions may have become such that life is no longer sustainable, and that all we can do if we reach it is examine the evidence of its history.
Even if there is still water on 452b, much of it is likely to be evaporating in the extra heat, leaving the area very dry. This could serve as a warning for us. Our own planet is heating up as the Sun changes and ages. Even if we modify our own actions toward responsibility for the planet, Kepler 452 and its planets could indicate that we’re facing a losing battle.
Conversely, it might give us an insight into reducing or halting the problem.
If the greenhouse effect is indeed in action, this has implications for the likelihood of life. The existence of living species should not be ruled out; just as we would adapt if we spent enough time there, other species could well evolve to suit a changing planet. It seems more probable that life once existed there than that it does currently, but both chances are much higher than they have been with any previous discovery.
10. Kepler-452b is 1400 light-years away from Earth
Talk of visiting Kepler-452b is sadly just that, because the planet is millions of years away in real-time travel. Located in Kepler-452’s solar system at the edge of our galaxy, the small planet is known to us simply through its shadows at the moment.
Traveling that distance would require a big change in how we approach space travel, as it would take an estimated 25 million years to get there, at current speeds. Scientists would need technology that currently only exists in science fiction movies; also, the quantity of fuel required for such a mission simply doesn’t exist on Earth.
The area of space we are currently able to visit is very limited. We are only just able to send humans to spend time on our nearest neighbors, and our cameras currently photographing nearby Pluto have been traveling for years. As a result, we’re unlikely to get many definitive answers about Kepler-452b in our lifetime.
The answers are not too far off, though, and we’re getting closer all the time, with new innovations and discoveries such as this. Future generations may be able to access technology that enables wider space exploration, and, as NASA stated, this is something to aim for.
A whole new world for future astronauts
We used to talk about visiting the moon and finding out what it was made of: we made it, and now we know. Then, visiting Mars become the hot topic: was it like Earth, and could we one day live there?
The Curiosity Rover is still sending back selfies from Mars, showing us just what the Red Planet is really like. We’re seeing those longstanding questions about space get answered all the time, and there’s been some very important breakthroughs in the last few decades.
Are we about to see the new age of space travel? Now that scientists know Kepler-452b exists, we’re all keen to discover more about it and have our questions answered. The possibility of other life in the universe is a hugely exciting concept, and it’s got everyone talking.
We’re probably not going to be able to make contact with this planet any time soon, but we’ve got a new level of understanding about the universe we’re in and how it works.
We can expect many more exciting discoveries as the Kepler telescope and the NASA Discovery team continue their hard work, and we’re sure that the new planet will spark a fresh interest in space study and encourage more research into the concept of extraterrestrial life.
Who knows? Perhaps next year we’ll know of even more planets which have the right conditions to spark life.
10. Mark Rademaker’s IXS-Enterprise (IXS-110)
Other images courtesy of NASA.
90's girl with a love of retro games and old school consoles - currently in the market for a working Commodore 64...
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