Kepler’s Tally of Planets

NASA’s Kepler mission has so far discovered more than 100 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars. In the New York Times Kepler’s impressive record is depicted in a very interesting interactive graphic which you will find here.  All the planets, with a known size and orbit, are shown in the graphic, including the five planets orbiting Kepler 62, which were announced on April 18.  You can read the full article here.

Astronomers have announced finding a pair of planets which seem to have all the characteristics required to support life.  The pair are situated 1 200 light years away in the northern constellation Lyra.  As far as astronomical distances are concerned this is “just around the corner” but, taking into account the current technical abilities of human space flight, going there is currently only possible in the science fiction realm.

Nevertheless the discovery is very important as it adds to our growing knowledge and understanding of the universe. These two planets are the outermost two of five worlds circling a previously anonymous  yellowish star, slightly smaller and dimmer than our Sun, which will now go down in the cosmic history books as Kepler 62. These planets are apparently about half as large as Earth and initial indications are that they are rocky planets covered by oceans with humid, cloudy skies, although that is at best a highly educated guess.

William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, head of the Kepler project, described one of the new worlds as the best site for Life Out There yet found in Kepler’s four-years-and-counting search for other Earths. He treated his team to pizza and beer on his own dime to celebrate the find. “It’s a big deal,” he said.

Sadly, as things stand now, it is unlikely that anybody will ever know if anything lives on these planets. The odds that humans will travel there any time soon without some “Star Trek” technology are negligibly small, but the news has certainly sent astronomers over the Moon.