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Only an artist’s rendering of them exists as reference to what the planets actually look like. All the way out in the constellation of Lyra, they could only be discovered by the drops in brightness of the stars around them. Despite there being little visual evidence of the new found “planets” presence, their detection marked a huge breakthrough in the scientific world. This was a breakthrough that will forever change, not just the way we look at our technology, but at the way we envision possibilities of life in the universe.
One of the main reasons scientists have been able to make this finding, is due to the ever improving technology over the years. Dating back nearly 4,000 years, Stonehenge, a rock formation in London, was one of the first tools used to predict the changes in the sky that occur throughout the year. These changes included things like the changes in the seasons (for instance being able to find the first day of summer and when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky) (Silverstein). Most bodies in space can’t be seen without special instruments (Asimov). In 1609, Galileo Galilei became the first person to use a telescope to search the sky enabling scientists to be able to see the planets in our solar system up close in order to study their properties (Silverstein).
From there, people were able to keep on improving the technologies into what had been used to find planets in what is called the Kepler mission, which began in 2008. Nowadays, rather than relying on telescopes on the ground, scientists were able to launch a spacecraft into space (Aguilar). The Kepler Space Telescope identifies planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the illumination of more than 150,000 stars. Doing that enables it to search for planets crossing in front or transiting their stars to locate bodies that may be 950 light-years away (Johnson) (Chu). The science team for the mission required at least three transits to confirm a signal as a planet. They used (what are now significantly more powerful) Earth based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates that the spacecraft finds. Based on information found over the centuries (using tools such as Stonehenge), the Kepler science team was able to deduce that the star field Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can be seen only from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be authenticated as planets. To validate the candidates, astronomers used a computer program called Blender, which runs simulations to help rule out other astrophysical occurrences that may appear to be a planet (Johnson).
Discovered in December of 2011, scientists named the planets Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f as a part of the NASA Kepler Mission. Unlike the other 300 orbiting planets and stars that have currently been found, the new found Kepler-20e and 20f, are different than any of the other known astronomical bodies (Chu) (Aguilar). Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f have similarities to Earth (Johnson). Resemblances, that could establish the globes as the having the biggest similarities to Earth as any other planet--maybe even as the first other planets besides Earth ever to have known intelligent life.
Scientists say life is anything that can move under its own power, reproduce and make more copies of itself, grows in size to become more complex over time, takes in nutrients to survive, gives off waste products, and responds to exterior stimuli such as increased sunlight. In order to have life, you need to have a type of environment such as Earth, which had previously been the only known globe to meet more than one of the specifications (Aguilar). Nowadays, however, scientists are finding that Kepler-20e and 20f also have qualifications to sustain life on a planet. For instance, one of the planets is about Earth’s size of 13,000 kilometers which is important because it means it is able to generate the gravity needed to hold an atmosphere and not let it float away (Chu) (Silverstein). Unlike all of the other planets found in the universe, both Earth and Kepler-20e and f also have rocky compositions (Johnson) (Aguilar). Both our planets also orbit a sun (Chu). In order for the Kepler to have life it would have to circle the right kind of star. Some stars have shorter lifetimes than ours, leaving little time for life to develop in the orbiting planets.
Unfortunately, these are the only criteria the Kepler planets meet in order to have life. Unlike Earth, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are very hot (Kepler-20f is 204 degrees C and Kepler- 20e is 760 degrees C) which is caused by short orbit times (Kepler-20e’s is 6.1 day and Kepler-20f’s 17.6 days)--not the right temperature to support life (Chu) (Johnson). The planets are also in a completely different 5-planet solar system (Johnson) where it’s possible for the planets to be susceptible to explosions, unlike Earth, which is protected in the arm of the Milky Way (Aguilar).
All of these factors put together mean that it’s highly unlikely that either Kepler-20e or Kepler-20f support any life, though they certainly are the closest thing that’s been found to a planet currently having intelligent life outside our solar system. According to an equation invented by astronomer Frank Drake to find out how many intelligent societies could exist, there may be between 4,000 to 5,000 alien civilizations in our galaxy based on today’s knowledge (Aguilar). ‘"In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time,"’ said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University. ‘"We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler's most anticipated discoveries are still to come (Johnson)."’
Though the Kepler planets may only appear to be some kind of artist’s interpretation of a faraway anomaly, it has provided scientists with invaluable information. Kepler-20e and 20f may not support any life, but they definitely are the first step towards finding a planet that does. After all, technology is always improving.
Aguilar, David A. Planets, Stars, and Galaxies. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2007.
Asimov, Isaac. Legends, Folklore, and Outer Space. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2005.
Chu, Jennifer. "Two New Earth-sized Exoplanets Discovered." web.mit.edu. MIT, December 21, 2011. Feb 2012. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/two-new-planets-found-1221.html.
Johnson, M.. "Kepler a Search for Habitable Planets." NASA discovers first earth-size planets beyond our solar system. NASA, 2011. Web. 28 Feb 2012 <http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-20-system.html>.
Silverstein, Alvin, Virginia Silverstein, and Laura Silverstein. The Universe. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009.