The Kepler space telescope has been nothing short of incredible, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets and showing just how common and diverse they really are (as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction). Recently, however, additional mechanical problems have started plaguing the mission, threatening to cut it short. The news during the past few weeks has been pessimistic, declaring that Kepler’s planet-hunting days are all but over. But there is still hope, as announced by the mission’s engineering team, that further testing later this month can help to resolve the situation.
There is some exciting news today regarding exoplanets – for the first time, multiple planets have been found orbiting within the habitable zone of their star, the region where temperatures can allow liquid water to exist on planets with rocky surfaces, like Earth. The news release was published this morning by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
So far, thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates have been found orbiting other stars. As well, astronomers have seen some exoplanets still in the process of formation, providing clues as to how our own solar system came to be. One of these recent “planet-under-construction” findings however is challenging current theories on planetary formation – it’s a planet which “shouldn’t be there” according to conventional wisdom.
There is some more exciting news from the Kepler space telescope mission – as announced in a NASA press briefing this morning, three more planets have been detected orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. Larger planets have been found already in this zone around various stars, but what makes this newest discovery so compelling is that these new planets are the smallest found so far in this zone, so-called “super-Earths.” Two of them may even be covered by oceans!
The Kepler space telescope has already found thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, and now the next space telescope to join the search has been announced.
One of the unique characteristics of Earth which sets it apart from other known planets is its oceans. Such large bodies of surface water have not yet been found elsewhere, although a number of moons, including Europa, Enceladus and Titan and possibly others, are thought to have subsurface oceans and or seas.