NASA News – NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers First Earth-Size Planet in ‘Habitable Zone’

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

Certainly NASA news worth posting! The constellation Cygnus returns to prime viewing in late Spring through the Summer and we’ll hope to have Kepler-186 found for the big Dob’s by then. Meantime, the NASA News Press Release is reproduced in its entirety below.

RELEASE 14-111 – April 17, 2014

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Caption: Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four inner planets, seen lined up in orbit around a host star that is half the size and mass of the sun. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.

“The discovery of Kepler-186f is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind’s quest to find truly Earth-like worlds.”

Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

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Caption: The diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is is half the size and mass of the sun. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system, about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four companion planets, which orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Quintana. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”

Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. On the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.

“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has,” said Thomas Barclay, research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

The four companion planets, Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d, and Kepler-186e, whiz around their sun every four, seven, 13, and 22 days, respectively, making them too hot for life as we know it. These four inner planets all measure less than 1.5 times the size of Earth.

The next steps in the search for distant life include looking for true Earth-twins — Earth-size planets orbiting within the habitable zone of a sun-like star — and measuring the their chemical compositions. The Kepler Space Telescope, which simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, is NASA’s first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun.

Ames is responsible for Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations, and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: www.nasa.gov/kepler

-end-

J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-5241
j.d.harrington@nasa.gov

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-4789
michele.johnson@nasa.gov

Karen Randall
SETI Institute
650 960-4537
krandall@seti.org

NASA news releases and other information are available automatically by sending an e-mail message with the subject line subscribe to hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov. To unsubscribe from the list, send an e-mail message with the subject line unsubscribe to hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov.

NASA Space Place – The Power of the Sun’s Engines

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in April, 2014.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceHere on Earth, the sun provides us with the vast majority of our energy, striking the top of the atmosphere with up to 1,000 Watts of power per square meter, albeit highly dependent on the sunlight’s angle-of-incidence. But remember that the sun is a whopping 150 million kilometers away, and sends an equal amount of radiation in all directions; the Earth-facing direction is nothing special. Even considering sunspots, solar flares, and long-and-short term variations in solar irradiance, the sun’s energy output is always constant to about one-part-in-1,000. All told, our parent star consistently outputs an estimated 4 × 1026 Watts of power; one second of the sun’s emissions could power all the world’s energy needs for over 700,000 years.

That’s a literally astronomical amount of energy, and it comes about thanks to the hugeness of the sun. With a radius of 700,000 kilometers, it would take 109 Earths, lined up from end-to-end, just to go across the diameter of the sun once. Unlike our Earth, however, the sun is made up of around 70% hydrogen by mass, and it’s the individual protons — or the nuclei of hydrogen atoms — that fuse together, eventually becoming helium-4 and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. All told, for every four protons that wind up becoming helium-4, a tiny bit of mass — just 0.7% of the original amount — gets converted into energy by E=mc2, and that’s where the sun’s power originates.

You’d be correct in thinking that fusing ~4 × 1038 protons-per-second gives off a tremendous amount of energy, but remember that nuclear fusion occurs in a huge region of the sun: about the innermost quarter (in radius) is where 99% of it is actively taking place. So there might be 4 × 1026 Watts of power put out, but that’s spread out over 2.2 × 1025 cubic meters, meaning the sun’s energy output per-unit-volume is just 18 W / m3. Compare this to the average human being, whose basal metabolic rate is equivalent to around 100 Watts, yet takes up just 0.06 cubic meters of space. In other words, you emit 100 times as much energy-per-unit-volume as the sun! It’s only because the sun is so large and massive that its power is so great.

It’s this slow process, releasing huge amounts of energy per reaction over an incredibly large volume, that has powered life on our world throughout its entire history. It may not appear so impressive if you look at just a tiny region, but — at least for our sun — that huge size really adds up!

Check out these “10 Need-to-Know Things About the Sun”: solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Sun.

Kids can learn more about an intriguing solar mystery at NASA’s Space Place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/sun-corona.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: Composite of 25 images of the sun, showing solar outburst/activity over a 365 day period; NASA / Solar Dynamics Observatory / Atmospheric Imaging Assembly / S. Wiessinger; post-processing by E. Siegel.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique: “The Snowball Earth”

NOTE: This Jr. Cafe lecture coincides with the Climate Day festivities at the MOST. CNYO members will be in attendance in the afternoon running a solar observing session on the Creekwalk (and I (Damian) will be giving a lecture on the Sun-Earth Connection inside). If you show up for the Jr. Cafe lecture, your entrance to the MOST is free for the afternoon courtesy of TACNY (and thanks for mentioning this extra perk Howie Hollander)!

Saturday – April 19, 9:30-11:00am

Milton J Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology – Syracuse, NY


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Earth’s climate has changed tremendously over its history. Did you know that the Earth nearly froze solid 2.3 billion years ago and again 700 million years ago? We will discuss how this may have happened, how the Earth warmed after the snowball events and how life survived.

People interested in learning more about climatology are invited to attend the free Junior Cafe presentation on Saturday, April 19, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse’s Armory Square. Walk-ins are welcome, but we ask that people RSVP by emailing jrcafe@tacny.org by April 16, 2014.

Presenters

Christopher K. Junium, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences in the Department of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University. Chris studies how life and climate interact of through Earth’s history by analyzing the chemistry of ancient sediments. He is particularly interested in how the concentrations of oxygen have changed in the atmosphere and ocean over time, and how life responds to transitions in Earth’s climate state. His research spans the last 2.5 billion years of Earth’s history, and his research has taken him as far away as the Arctic Circle and as close as Green Lakes State Park. Recently, he spent two months as a scientist aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution to recover sediment cores from the Atlantic Ocean in an effort to better understand the causes of extremely warm climate 50 million years ago.

Chris received his B.S. in Geology from Dickinson College in 2000 and his Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University in Geosciences in 2010. From there he moved to Northwestern University under an Agouron Institute Geobiology Fellowship. He started at Syracuse University in January of 2012.

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique, a program for middle-school students founded in 2005, features discussions about topics in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an informal atmosphere and seeks to encourage students to consider careers in these areas. Students must be accompanied by an adult and can explore the MOST at no cost after the event.

Technology Alliance of Central New York

Founded in 1903 as the Technology Club of Syracuse, the nonprofit Technology Alliance of Central New York’s mission is to facilitate community awareness, appreciation, and education of technology; and to collaborate with like-minded organizations across Central New York.

For more information about TACNY, visit www.tacny.org.