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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hundreds Of New Planets Confirmed By NASA

The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on. (NASA)

The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on.
(NASA)

NASA has confirmed the existence of 715 new planets. It’s all thanks to the work of the Kepler Mission, which is tasked with finding habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

Of the 715 planets confirmed, 100 of those are about the size of Earth, and four are in the habitable zone of their stars, meaning they’re not too hot or too cold.

Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, where the Kepler Mission is based, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss how Kepler finds new planets, and the likelihood that they support life.

Interview Highlights: Pete Worden

On the contributions made by the Kepler Mission

“The fundamental question that everyone wants to know is, are we alone? Kepler has made major progress in figuring out are there planets like the Earth around other stars. The problem is, is that we do it sort of indirectly. We’re looking for small changes in the light of a star. It’s kind of like if I look at a streetlight, and a bug flies in front of it, I see a small decrease in the light. In this case, it’s only a few hundred thousandths of the light level. The problem is, there’s a lot of other things that can cause that. A lot of our effort is to get rid of false positives.”

“The key thing is to figure out which things are real, and particularly which ones are kind of Earth-sized, and even more important if we find things that are in what we call the ‘habitable zone,’ which is a planet that could support life as we know it on Earth.”

On how close we are to finding life on other planets

“Kepler was a survey mission, so it looked at planets pretty far away. These are hundreds to thousands of light years away. What we’re really interested in is the nearest stars. So the next step is going to be to look at these and see if there’s any transiting planets. So in the next decade, we’re going to answer the question, ‘are we alone.'”

On the types of life that could be found

“It’s kind of unclear what we mean by what we find, ‘other life.’ We’re really thinking that what we’re going to see is evidence of plant life and other things. We’re gonna be looking for evidence of some form of life, and it could’ve been anywhere in the history of the planet.”

The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets verified by multiplicity. (NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe)

The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets verified by multiplicity. (NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe)

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And now to the news from outer space. NASA has confirmed the existence of 715 new planets. It's all thanks to the work of the Kepler Space Telescope, which is looking for habitable planets in the Milky Way. For more we are joined from Moffett Field, California, by Pete Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center, where the Kepler mission is based. Pete Worden, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.

PETE WORDEN: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, tell us what is most interesting to you about this discovery.

WORDEN: Well, the fundamental question that everyone wants to know is, are we alone. Kepler has made major progress in figuring out are there planets like the Earth around other stars. The problem is, is that we do it sort of indirectly.

We're looking for small changes in the light of a star. It's kind of like if I look at a streetlight, and a bug flies in front of it, I see a small decrease in the light. In this case, it's only a few hundred thousandths of the light level. The problem is, there's a lot of other things that can cause that. A lot of our effort is to get rid of false positives.

HOBSON: Well, and you're saying these are confirmed planets. We are talking about 715 of them, 100 of them about the size of the Earth, and four of those are in the habitable zone of their stars.

WORDEN: Absolutely, and this is the key thing is to figure out which things are real, and particularly which ones are kind of Earth-sized and even more important if we find things that are in what we call the habitable zone, which is a planet that could support life as we know it on Earth.

HOBSON: How important is Kepler in our efforts to figure out if there are indeed other things that are alive out there in space?

WORDEN: Well, Kepler was the first mission that NASA launched that was really focused on finding planets the size of the Earth. And we found that based on Kepler data that maybe a quarter of the stars in our galaxy have a planet about the size of the Earth in the habitable zone, so incredibly important.

But we're now looking at the follow-ons. In the next decade, we're going to try to see do any of these planets actually have life.

HOBSON: Well, so how do we do that?

WORDEN: Kepler was a survey mission, so it looked at planets pretty far away. These are hundreds to thousands of light years away. What we're really interested in is the nearest stars. So the next step is going to be to look at these and see if there's any transiting planets. So in the next decade, we're going to answer the question are we alone.

HOBSON: Well, if we do that, do you think that we're going to be the ones to go out and find the other living things out in outer space, or will they find us first?

WORDEN: Well, you know, again it's kind of unclear what we mean by what we find other life. We're really thinking that what we're going to see is evidence of plant life and other things. We're going to be looking for evidence of some form of life, and it could've been anywhere in the history of the planet.

HOBSON: But it might just be a flower or a tree.

WORDEN: A flower or a tree or maybe just bacteria.

HOBSON: Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, talking with us about the 715 new planets discovered by Kepler. Peter Worden, thanks so much.

WORDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: So sorry, Meghna, just a flower or a tree or some bacteria.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Just complex life forms like that.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: I know. It is very exciting still. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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