Each second that goes by is another step towards a great discovery, even when there’s a big huge jerk distance of 490 light years that makes the discoveries almost impossible. For the first time ever, scientists have identified an exoplanet that is both Earth-sized and within the habitable zone of its star, making it a prime candidate to produce life. Now all we need to do is build an autonomous drone that looks exactly like Michael Fassbender and get the hell over there. Oh yeah, the 490 light years.
You won’t soon be forgetting the name of Kepler-186f, which just became our best chance of finding someone else in the universe, though it probably won’t happen anytime even relatively soon. It’s going to take another generation or two of space telescopes before we reach the capability of getting a really good look at the exoplanet. With the Kepler telescope no longer functioning properly, there’s no chance of further study at this point, unless of course Kepler-186f’s inhabitants start waving around some extremely large semaphore flags. But let’s not focus on the negative.
“This is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a cooler star,” says Kepler scientist and study co-author Tom Barclay. “So, while it’s not an Earth twin, it is perhaps an Earth cousin. It has similar characteristics, but a different parent.” Indeed, Kepler-186f revolves around an M-type red dwarf, which definitely lives long enough to produce planetary life. Plus, its solar flares are large enough — and 186f is far enough away — that the radiation may have even helped the evolution along.
The planet is about 10 percent larger than Earth, and the study authors think it may be just as rocky. (Usually when a planet is 1.5 times larger than Earth, its atmosphere becomes heavy with hydrogen and helium, turning it into something closer to a gas giant.) 186f is on the outer section of the habitable zone, which may mean its water (or whatever fluid) is frozen. (Let it go! Let it go-o-o!) But while no one knows what the atmosphere of 186f is like, study co-author Stephen Kane says its larger size could produce a thicker atmosphere, potentially warming the planet enough to keep it all in liquid form. So technically, 186f could have a Sea World that is also in the midst of a brand backlash.
Even though we’re still in the very early days of making plans to spread humanity beyond this planet, there would be nothing more exciting than to discover there is something else out there that might be looking back at us. Especially if it’s closer than 490 lightyears.