SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — I'm huddled outside the Hyatt hotel entrance, shivering with a notepad in hand and half listening to the pop music coming from "Christia and Derick's wedding reception," when Erika Dunning breaks the news. "The International Space Station is passing overhead in four minutes," she says, reading her NASA iPhone app. "Thirty degrees above northwest, 66 degrees max elevation."
Heads turn, and we all gather around the only telescope at this parking lot star party. "This will be a good view," Erika assures her fellow SETIcon attendees. She's 12 years old. A couple minutes later, the hodgepodge group of science fiction fans, aspirational rocket scientists and self-affirmed space nerds all stare skyward, watching as the unmistakably steady and surprisingly bright ISS sails over the hotel. A small cheer rises. "Sweet!" says Nick Orenstein, 29, capturing the moment pretty much perfectly. "I've never seen this before."
Imagine crawling out of bed and seeing a gigantic red Mars instead of the Sun. That's basically the situation for two newly discovered planets. Astronomers working with NASA's Kepler Mission recently found them 1,200 light years away, and they're 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system. Actually, the scientists aren't totally sure how that happened--just another sign that our solar system is not the only way planets can be arranged.
Tomorrow, skywatchers the world over will look up to behold a strange sight witnessed just seven times in the past five centuries. The last transit of Venus until 2117 is an occasion for astronomical celebration and historic import — we’ll be watching something the greatest astronomers of any age have traveled the world to see.
Each star in the Milky Way shines its light upon at least one companion planet, according to a new analysis that suddenly renders exoplanets commonplace, the rule rather than the exception. This means there are billions of worlds just in our corner of the cosmos. This is a major shift from just a few years ago, when many scientists thought planets were tricky to make, and therefore special things. Now we know they're more common than stars themselves.
"Planets are like bunnies; you don't just get one, you get a bunch," said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved in this research.
Two more little Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a distant star, astronomers said Wednesday, and their bizarre baked death may foreshadow the destiny of our own solar system. The publication comes a day after the announcement of the first Earth-sized planets ever confirmed outside our solar system. Already firmly in the exoplanet age, we're apparently entering an era of exo-Earths, full of small worlds with a past and a future very much like our own.
Two small, scorched Earth-sized worlds orbiting a reddish sun-like star in the Cygnus constellation mark yet another milestone for the storied Kepler Space Telescope mission. They're the smallest exoplanets found to date — one of them is just 1.03 times the size of Earth, a veritable body double.
Nestled in the Goldilocks zone of a small, sun-like star is a room-temperature world a little more than twice the size of Earth. Scientists do not yet know if it is rocky or gaseous and whether it has water or clouds, but they do know that it's the right size, and in the right place, for liquid water to exist. If it does exist, it may be one of the best places to look for life outside of our solar system.
The new planet, Kepler-22, is about 600 light-years away and the smallest planet confirmed to exist smack in the middle of the habitable zone of a sun-like star. It's one of the most stunning announcements from the Kepler Space Telescope, which stares at a field of stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra and looks for blips in brightness to find other planets. While Kepler has (as of today) found more than 2,000 possible planets, finding an Earth-like world in a sun-like environment has proved elusive — until now.
In the pantheon of modern astronomical explorers, the Kepler Space Telescope ranks right near the top, uncovering more than 1,200 worlds outside our solar system while staring at just a small fraction of the sky. Kepler has unveiled searingly hot, tiny terrestrial worlds, planets potentially sharing an orbit, an especially inky light-absorbing planet, and 54 planets comfortably ensconced in the Goldilocks zones of their stars. In September, Kepler astronomers announced yet another bizarre discovery: A planet orbiting around a binary star system, just like a certain dun-colored world in a certain science fiction film sextet.
But most people likely didn't know this exciting find — doubtless one of Kepler's most famous discoveries to date — was initially someone else's trash. Laurance Doyle happily sifted through it, leading to one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the year.