Earth-Like Planets 'Relatively Common,' Could Support Life, Says Study

Image: Earth-Like Planets 'Relatively Common,' Could Support Life, Says Study Artist's rendition of NASA's planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope.

Wednesday, 06 Nov 2013 08:56 AM

By Clyde Hughes

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A University of California, Berkeley study released Monday says that Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy are "relatively common" and could support life.

A statistical analysis by astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Hawaii concludes that one in five sun-like stars have planets about the size of Earth in what is known as the "Goldilocks" zone, which has the right balance of lukewarm temperatures so water does not freeze nor does it evaporate. 

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"When you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing," California, Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis, said in the news release.

Petigura and his research team used data from NASA's planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope to scrutinize 150,000 faint stars in its field of view. 

Andrew Howard, an astronomer with the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, said that the analysis shows there are millions of planets in the Milky Way that could possibly sustain life or already sustaining life.

"It’s been nearly 20 years since the discovery of the first extrasolar planet around a normal star," said Howard, a former Berkeley post-doctoral fellow. "Since then, we have learned that most stars have planets of some size orbiting them, and that Earth-size planets are relatively common in close-in orbits that are too hot for life."

The study by Petigura, Howard and Geoffrey Marcy, a California, Berkeley astronomy professor, appears in the online edition of the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." 

Space.com reported that Petigura presented the results of the study Monday during a briefing at the second Kepler Science Conference at NASA Research Park in Moffett Field, Calif. 

"I think it's by far the most trustable estimate available, but I don't think it's final," Francois Fressin, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said. Fressin was not involved in the study.

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