Stranger Than Fiction: First "Alien Earth" Could Be Found This Year
01.09.13 by BrentJS
Science fiction is replete with Earthlike alien planets, from Queen Amidala's lush Naboo in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, to Spock's (Zachary Quinto) ill-fated Vulcan in Star Trek. In science reality, however, Earthlike alien planets are nothing more than that, fiction. In fact, the first extrasolar planet revolving around a sunlike star wasn't even discovered until 1995 and nothing even closely resembling our home has been found...yet. Based on the latest analysis of data from NASA's Kepler mission, scientists now believe our galaxy contains "tens of billions" of planets similar to our own and Earth's first "twin" will likely be discovered this year.
The Strange Truth
The search for Earthlike planets is one of the most exciting of NASA's currently ongoing missions. The Kepler Space Telescope, launched in March 2009, has so far dicovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, most of them gas giants, ice giants and hot super-Earths in short period orbits. Late last year, Kepler found a planet just 2.4 times the size of the Earth orbiting within its star's "Goldilocks Zone," the special distance from a given sun where water can exist in liquid form and life as we know it is possible.
For the most part, Kepler is unable to directly view extrasolar planets because the light they reflect is so dim compared to the stars they orbit, but scientists are able to discover new planets by looking for dips in starlight created when planets "transit" in front of their stars. Analysis of the latest Kepler data suggests that Earthlike planets are far more common than anyone previously thought. Using independent software to analyze Kepler's data, astronomer Francois Fressin and his colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, estimate that half of all sunlike stars possess rocky planets within an Earth-size orbit or larger, which means that there are tens of billions of potential Earth "twins" in our galaxy alone.
"I'm very positive that the first Earth twin will be discovered next year," said Abel Mendez of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.
Also, check out Space's gallery of The Strangest Alien Planets discovered so far.
Starship Troopers, Avatar, Prometheus
While there are few movies where the discovery of an Earth "twin" is a major plot point in and of itself, there are dozens of movies that center around what happens after an Earthlike planet or moon is found — exploration, exploitation, colonization. In the 1997 movie Starship Troopers, humans of the Federation invade Klendathu, the Earthlike home planet of an antagonistic species of giant "Bugs." The plot of the highest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, centers around a human mining operation on Pandora, an Earthlike moon orbiting around a star in the Alpha Centauri star system. And, in last year's Prometheus, scientists seeking the origin of life on Earth find their answers (and nasty aliens) on the Earthlike moon LV-223 in a distant star system.