Searching For The Next Earth

Just in case you haven’t had your daily dose of science fiction come true, astronomers and other scientists believe that we are within just a generation of finding the next habitable planet. New Earth, Next Earth, or Earth 2.0 will not be an easy planet to discover and will require more than just a little luck. However, for the first time in history, we have the tools to determine whether a world orbiting a star other than the Sun has the conditions necessary to facilitate human life. Researchers at the Carl Sagan Institute have an outline for how we may find Earth’s doppelganger and maybe, who knows, our next home.

During the last twenty years, exoplanet research has exploded.

Not long ago, scientists had not even confirmed one single planet outside our solar system. Many of the planets found since are thanks to one NASA mission: the Kepler. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has uncovered more than a thousand confirmed planets and over 4,100 candidates. The telescope scans a small piece of our galaxy and takes a sort of planetary census, using light sensors known as photometers to spot planetary shadows. With the data from this census, astronomers then estimate the number and spread of planets scattered throughout our galaxy. Thanks to this method, astronomers now know that a good fraction of worlds roughly the size of earth are within the habitable zone of their stars. With billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the universe, the odds are certainly in our favor.

So, how do planet hunters plan to find the next Earth?

Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomer of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell, tells us that the best habitat for life has a combination of oxygen, ozone, and a reducing gas that can make oxygen go away. The James Webb Space Telescope, a solar-powered observatory, will be studying atmospheres of planets scanned by the Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Many of these planets will be much closer to Earth than those scanned by the Kepler telescope, since TESS will scan the entire sky. TESS is set to launch in 2017, and the telescope will follow in 2018. So, discovery of the next Earth is very likely within the lifetime of our children.