Top Story: April 19, 2013

Kepler’s Water Worlds

NASA, exoplanets, Kepler, Ames, 62e, 62f, 69c, water world, borucki, habitable, Earth-like, stars

By Molly Michelson

When is exoplanet news “juicy”? Yesterday at a Kepler press conference held at NASA Ames, Roger Hunter, Kepler project manager, introduced the proceedings as juicy. And as three scientists presented the findings, it turned out to be a good adjective. The researchers believe they have discovered the first water worlds (besides Earth) in our galaxy.

Two systems are providing new evidence of rocky Earth-like planets in the habitable zone—the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet might be suitable for liquid water. Kepler 62 has five planets total, but two of those, 62e and 62f, orbit inside the habitable zone. Kepler 69 has two planets but only one in the habitable zone, 69c.

For exoplanets and their stars, size matters when it comes to habitability. At 1,200 light years away, the star Kepler 62 is two-thirds the size of our Sun. That brings the habitable zone in a bit closer to the star. The two planets of interest, 62e and 62f, are 1.6 and 1.4 times the diameter of Earth, respectively. This also puts them in the “just-right” size for habitability.

At the press conference, William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA Ames, said that 62e and 62f “are the best candidates to be habitable, not just within the habitable zone.”

Computer models suggest that the largest rocky planets will have a diameter no greater than 1.5 times that of Earth’s, explained Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And a planet’s mass, between 1.2-2.5 times Earth’s mass, can be an indicator for liquid water. While Kepler 62e and 62f are too small to measure their mass, Kaltenegger and her team’s modeling makes these planets very wet, indeed.

Kepler 69c, on the other hand, is 2,700 light years away and 1.5 times Earth’s diameter. It orbits near the inner, hotter edge of its star’s habitable zone. Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist from the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, likens it to a super Venus, rather than a super Earth. “We don’t have anything like it in our solar system,” he said.

“The Kepler spacecraft has certainly turned out to be a rock star of science,” said John Grunsfeld, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The discovery of these rocky planets in the habitable zone brings us a bit closer to finding a place like home. It is only a matter of time before we know if the galaxy is home to a multitude of planets like Earth, or if we are a rarity.”

The findings are published this week in Science (Kepler 62) and the Astrophysical Journal (Kepler 69).

For an interactive on Kepler’s planetary discoveries and their orbits, click here.

Image: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

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