Scientists using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered that the immense halo of gas enveloping the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest massive galactic neighbor, is about six times larger and 1,000 times more massive than previously measured. The dark, nearly invisible halo stretches about a million light-years from its host galaxy, halfway to our own Milky Way galaxy. This finding promises to tell astronomers more about the evolution and structure of majestic giant spirals, one of the most common types of galaxies in the universe.
"Halos are the gaseous atmospheres of galaxies. The properties of these gaseous halos control the rate at which stars form in galaxies according to models of galaxy formation," explained the lead investigator, Nicolas Lehner of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. The gargantuan halo is estimated to contain half the mass of the stars in the Andromeda galaxy itself, in the form of a hot, diffuse gas. If it could be viewed with the naked eye, the halo would be 100 times the diameter of the full Moon in the sky. This is equivalent to the patch of sky covered by two basketballs held at arm's length.
The Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31, lies 2.5 million light-years away and looks like a faint spindle, about 6 times the diameter of the full Moon. It is considered a near-twin to the Milky Way galaxy.
Because the gas in Andromeda's halo is dark, the team looked at bright background objects through the gas and observed how the light changed. This is a bit like looking at a glowing light at the bottom of a pool at night. The ideal background "lights" for such a study are quasars, which are very distant bright cores of active galaxies powered by black holes. The team used 18 quasars residing far behind Andromeda to probe how material is distributed well beyond the visible disk of the galaxy. Their findings were published in the May 10, 2015, edition of The Astrophysical Journal.
Earlier research from Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS)-Halos program studied 44 distant galaxies and found halos like Andromeda's, but never before has such a massive halo been seen in a neighboring galaxy. Because the previously studied galaxies were much farther away, they appeared much smaller on the sky. Only one quasar could be detected behind each faraway galaxy, providing only one light anchor point to map their halo size and structure. With its close proximity to Earth and its correspondingly large footprint on the sky, Andromeda provides a far more extensive sampling of a lot of background quasars. "As the light from the quasars travels toward Hubble, the halo's gas will absorb some of that light and make the quasar appear a little darker in just a very small wavelength range," explains co-investigator J. Christopher Howk, also of Notre Dame. "By measuring the dip in brightness in that range, we can tell how much halo gas from M31 there is between us and that quasar."
The scientists used Hubble's unique capability to study the ultraviolet light from the quasars. Ultraviolet light is absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, which makes it difficult to observe with a ground-based telescope. The team drew from about 5 years' worth of observations stored in the Hubble data archive to conduct this research. Many previous Hubble campaigns have used quasars to study gas much farther away than — but in the general direction of — Andromeda, so a treasure trove of data already existed.
But where did the giant halo come from? Large-scale simulations of galaxies suggest that the halo formed at the same time as the rest of Andromeda. The team also determined that it is enriched in elements much heavier than hydrogen and helium, and the only way to get these heavy elements is from exploding stars called supernovae. The supernovae erupt in Andromeda's star-filled disk and violently blow these heavier elements far out into space. Over Andromeda's lifetime, nearly half of all the heavy elements made by its stars have been expelled far beyond the galaxy's 200,000-light-year-diameter stellar disk.
What does this mean for our own galaxy? Because we live inside the Milky Way, scientists cannot determine whether or not such an equally massive and extended halo exists around our galaxy. It's a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. If the Milky Way does possess a similarly huge halo, the two galaxies' halos may be nearly touching already and quiescently merging long before the two massive galaxies collide. Hubble observations indicate that the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy beginning about 4 billion years from now.View Article Here Read More
Excerpt from space.com A telescope will soon allow astronomers to probe the atmosphere of Earthlike exoplanets for signs of life. To prepare, astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger and her team are modeling the atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. Here's how: The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018, will usher a new era in our search for life beyond Earth. With its 6.5-meter mirror, the long-awaited successor to Hubble will be large enough to detect potential biosignatures in the atmosphere of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars. And we may soon find a treasure-trove of such worlds. The forthcoming exoplanet hunter TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), set to launch in 2017, will scout the entire sky for planetary systems close to ours. (The current Kepler mission focuses on more distant stars, between 600 and 3,000 light-years from Earth.)
Astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger
While TESS will allow for the brief detection of new planets, the larger James Webb will follow up on select candidates and provide clues about their atmospheric composition. But the work will be difficult and require a lot of telescope time. "We're expecting to find thousands of new planets with TESS, so we'll need to select our best targets for follow-up study with the Webb telescope," says Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer at Cornell University and co-investigator on the TESS team. To prepare, Kaltenegger and her team at Cornell's Institute for Pale Blue Dots are building a database of atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. The models will then be used as "ID cards" to guide the study of exoplanet atmospheres with the Webb and other future large telescopes. Kaltenegger described her approach in a talk for the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Director Seminar Series last December. "For the first time in human history, we have the technology to find and characterize other worlds," she says. "And there's a lot to learn."
Detecting life from space
In its 1990 flyby of Earth, the Galileo spacecraft took a spectrum of sunlight filtered through our planet's atmosphere. In a 1993 paper in the journal Nature, astronomer Carl Sagan analyzed that data and found a large amount of oxygen together with methane — a telltale sign of life on Earth. These observations established a control experiment for the search of extraterrestrial life by modern spacecraft. "The spectrum of a planet is like a chemical fingerprint," Kaltenegger says. "This gives us the key to explore alien worlds light years away." Current telescopes have picked up the spectra of giant, Jupiter-like exoplanets. But the telescopes are not large enough to do so for smaller, Earth-like worlds. The James Webb telescope will be our first shot at studying the atmospheres of these potentially habitable worlds. Some forthcoming ground-based telescopes — including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), planned for completion in 2020, and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), scheduled for first light in 2024 — may also be able to contribute to that task. [The Largest Telescopes on Earth: How They Compare] And with the expected discovery by TESS of thousands of nearby exoplanets, the James Webb and other large telescopes will have plenty of potential targets to study. Another forthcoming planet hunter, the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), a planned European Space Agency mission scheduled for launch around 2022-2024, will contribute even more candidates. However, observation time for follow-up studies will be costly and limited. "It will take hundreds of hours of observation to see atmospheric signatures with the Webb telescope," Kaltenegger says. "So we'll have to pick our targets carefully."
Set to see its first light in 2021, The Giant Magellan Telescope will be the world’s largest telescope.
Getting a head start
To guide that process, Kaltenegger and her team are putting together a database of atmospheric fingerprints of potential alien worlds. "The models are tools that can teach us how to observe and help us prioritize targets," she says. To start, they have modeled the chemical fingerprint of Earth over geological time. Our planet's atmosphere has evolved over time, with different life forms producing and consuming various gases. These models may give astronomers some insight into a planet's evolutionary stage. Other models take into consideration the effects of a host of factors on the chemical signatures — including water, clouds, atmospheric thickness, geological cycles, brightness of the parent star, and even the presence of different extremophiles. "It's important to do this wide range of modeling right now," Kaltenegger said, "so we're not too startled if we detect something unexpected. A wide parameter space can allow us to figure out if we might have a combination of these environments." She added: "It can also help us refine our modeling as fast as possible, and decide if more measurements are needed while the telescope is still in space. It's basically a stepping-stone, so we don't have to wait until we get our first measurements to understand what we are seeing. Still, we'll likely find things we never thought about in the first place."
A new research center
The spectral database is one of the main projects undertaken at the Institute for Pale Blue Dots, a new interdisciplinary research center founded in 2014 by Kaltenegger. The official inauguration will be held on May 9, 2015. "The crux of the institute is the characterization of rocky, Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of nearby stars," Kaltenergger said. "It's a very interdisciplinary effort with people from astronomy, geology, atmospheric modeling, and hopefully biology." She added: "One of the goal is to better understand what makes a planet a life-friendly habitat, and how we can detect that from light years away. We're on the verge of discovering other pale blue dots. And with Sagan's legacy, Cornell University is a really great home for an institute like that."View Article Here Read More
The full visible sky as seen by the Planck space observatory. The band running through the middle corresponds to dust in our Milky Way galaxy. The black dots indicate the location of the proto-cluster candidates identified by Planck and subsequently observed by the Herschel space telescope. (Photo : ESA and the Planck Collaboration)
Treasure seekers have found the haul of a lifetime, but it wasn't in some ancient temple or mysterious island. Instead, it was in the sky. Researcher using two of the European Space Agency's (ESA) impressive space telescopes have successfully identified what they are calling a "treasure chest" of ancient galaxy clusters, which could help explain how the Universe came to be the way it is today.
That's at least according to a study recently published (PDF) in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, which details how cosmologists used the ESA's Planck space observatory to identify the distant precursor galaxy clusters, and then poured over data from the Herschel telescope for a closer look.
"Finding so many intensely star-forming, dust galaxies in such concentrated groups was a huge surprise," Hervé Dole, lead author of the report from the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France, said in a statement. "We think this is a missing piece of cosmological structure formation."
So what does he mean by that? Let's turn back to the treasure chest metaphor for this one. While Planck was the space observatory to dig up the chest, it was the Herschel data that allowed experts to look closely at each and every gold coin (galaxy cluster) inside. Now they are able to learn more about each coin's make, mint, and ultimately, its origins.
And that's a big step in better understanding the early Universe. Expects believe that it took a great deal of time after star and galaxies first sprung to life for them to assemble into large clusters.
(Photo : ESA – C. Carreau) A summary of the 14 billion years out Universe has been in existence, as seen by the Plank space telescope. Light coming from some of the oldest parts of the Universe are just reaching the observatory now, allowing for experts to see the incredible uniformity of the early matter, compared to the chaotic beautify of star, galaxy, and cluster formation that crowds space today.
Once the clusters formed, their gravitational influence triggered the creation of new stars and galaxies. Dark matter - which is theorized to account for a great deal of each cluster's mass and influence - helped usher along the process of creating stars. But how these large clusters were ultimately assembled and grew is still a mystery. That's why looking at some of the oldest 'coins' ever made - estimated to date back to up-to 11 billion light-years ago - could be exceptionally helpful.
"We still have a lot to learn about this new population," Dole said in an ESA release. "Hints of these kinds of objects had been found earlier in data from Herschel and other telescopes, but the all-sky capability of Planck revealed many more candidates for us to study."
"Even when we combined the powerful capabilities of Planck and Herschel, we were only scratching the surface of the phenomena taking place at this critical era in the history of our universe, when stars, galaxies and clusters seem to be forming simultaneously," added George Helou, director of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "That's one of the reasons this finding is exciting. It shows us that there is so much more to be learned.View Article Here Read More
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, near which the satellites were found. Excerpt from cnet.com Researchers have found rare satellite dwarf galaxies and candidate dwarf galaxies in orbit around our Milky Way, the largest number of such...
After six years of planetary observations, scientists at NASA say they have found convincing new evidence that ancient Mars had an ocean.
It was probably the size of the Arctic Ocean, larger than previously estimated, the researchers reported on Thursday. The body of water spread across the low-lying plain of the planet’s northern hemisphere for millions of years, they said.
If confirmed, the findings would add significantly to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s history and lend new weight to the view that ancient Mars had everything needed for life to emerge.
“The existence of a northern ocean has been debated for decades, but this is the first time we have such a strong collection of data from around the globe,” said Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an author of the report, published in the journal Science. “Our results tell us there had to be a northern ocean.”
But other experts said the question was hardly resolved. The ocean remains “a hypothesis,” said Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist of the Curiosity rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Dr. Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA, measured two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.
The other is a slightly “heavier” version of water, HDO, in which the nucleus of one hydrogen atom contains a neutron. The atom is called deuterium.
The two forms exist in predictable ratios on Earth, and both have been found in meteorites from Mars. A high level of heavier water today would indicate that there was once a lot more of the “lighter” water, somehow lost as the planet changed.
The scientists found eight times as much deuterium in the Martian atmosphere than is found in water on Earth. Dr. Villanueva said the findings “provide a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had by determining how much water was lost to space.”
He said the measurements pointed to an ancient Mars that had enough water to cover the planet to a depth of at least 137 meters, or about 450 feet. Except for assessments based on the size of the northern basin, this is the highest estimate of the amount of water on early Mars that scientists have ever made.
The water on Mars mostly would have pooled in the northern hemisphere, which lies one to three kilometers — 0.6 to 1.8 miles — below the bedrock surface of the south, the scientists said.
At one time, the researchers estimated, a northern ocean would have covered about 19 percent of the Martian surface. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 17 percent of Earth’s surface.
The new findings come at a time when the possibility of a northern ocean on Mars has gained renewed attention.
The Curiosity rover measured lighter and heavier water molecules in the Gale Crater, and the data also indicated that Mars once had substantial amounts of water, although not as much as Dr. Mumma and Dr. Villanueva suggest.
“The more water was present — and especially if it was a large body of water that lasted for a longer period of time — the better the chances are for life to emerge and to be sustained,” said Paul Mahaffy, chief of the atmospheric experiments laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Just last month, the science team running the Curiosity rover held its first formal discussion about the possibility of such an ocean and what it would have meant for the rest of Mars.
Scientists generally agree that lakes must have existed for millions of years in Gale Crater and elsewhere. But it is not clear how they were sustained and replenished.
“For open lakes to remain relatively stable for millions of years — it’s hard to figure how to do that without an ocean,” Dr. Vasavada said. “Unless there was a large body of water supplying humidity to the planet, the water in an open lake would quickly evaporate and be carried to the polar caps or frozen out.”
Yet climate modelers have had difficulty understanding how Mars could have been warm enough in its early days to keep water from freezing. Greenhouse gases could have made the planet much warmer at some point, but byproducts of those gases have yet to be found on the surface.
James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, said in an email that the new paper had “profound implications for the total volume of water” on ancient Mars.
But, he added, “climate models have great difficulty in reconstructing an early Mars with temperatures high enough to permit surface melting and liquid water.”
Also missing are clear signs of the topographic and geological features associated with large bodies of water on Earth, such as sea cliffs and shorelines.
Based on low-resolution images sent back by the Viking landers, the geologist Timothy Parker and his colleagues at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab reported in 1989 the discovery of ancient shorelines. But later high-resolution images undermined their conclusions.
Still, Dr. Parker and his colleagues have kept looking for — and finding, they say — some visible signs of a northern ocean. The new data “certainly encourages me to do more,” he said in an interview.
Other researchers have also been looking for signs of an ancient ocean.
In 2013, Roman DiBiase, then a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology there, identified what might have been a system of channels on Mars that originated in the southern hemisphere and emptied steeply into the northern basin — perhaps, they said, water flowing through a delta to an ocean.
Excerpt from paranormal.lovetoknow.com By Michelle Radcliff The Bermuda Triangle is an area of mostly open ocean located between Bermuda, Miami, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The unexplained disappearances of hundreds of ships and air...
Excerpt from space.com By by Elizabeth Howell In 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" as a series of simulated radio bulletins of what was happening in real time as Martians arrived on our home planet. The broadcast is widely remembered for creating public panic, although to what extent is hotly debated today.
Still, the incident serves as an illustration of what could happen when the first life beyond Earth is discovered. While scientists might be excited by the prospect, introducing the public, politicians and interest groups to the idea could take some time.
How extraterrestrial life would change our world view is a research interest of Steven Dick, who just completed a term as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology. The chair is jointly sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John W. Kluge Center, at the Library of Congress.
Dick is a former astronomer and historian at the United States Naval Observatory, a past chief historian for NASA, and has published several books concerning the discovery of life beyond Earth. To Dick, even the discovery of microbes would be a profound shift for science.
"If we found microbes, it would have an effect on science, especially biology, by universalizing biology," he said. "We only have one case of biology on Earth. It's all related. It's all DNA-based. If we found an independent example on Mars or Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal biology."
Dick points out that even the possibilities of extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints, such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science article said structures inside of it could be linked to biological activity. The conclusion, which is still debated today, led to congressional hearings.
"I've done a book about discovery in astronomy, and it's an extended process," Dick pointed out. "It's not like you point your telescope and say, 'Oh, I made a discovery.' It's always an extended process: You have to detect something, you have to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed it could take an extended period of years to understand it."
The ALH84001 meteorite, which in a 1996 Science publication was speculated to be host to what could be ancient Martian fossils. That finding is still under dispute today.
In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent time searching for historical examples (as well as historical analogies) of how humanity might deal with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. History shows that contact with new cultures can go in vastly different directions.
Hernan Cortes' treatment of the Aztecs is often cited as an example of how wrong first contact can go. But there were other efforts that were a little more mutually beneficial, although the outcomes were never perfect. Fur traders in Canada in the 1800s worked closely with Native Americans, for example, and the Chinese treasure fleet of the 15th Century successfully brought its home culture far beyond its borders, perhaps even to East Africa.
Even when both sides were trying hard to make communication work, there were barriers, noted Dick.
"The Jesuits had contact with Native Americans," he pointed out. "Certain concepts were difficult, like when they tried to get across the ideas of the soul and immortality."
A second look by the Mars Global Surveyor at the so-called Viking “Face on Mars” in Cydonia revealed a more ordinary-looking hill, showing that science is an extended process of discovery.
Indirect contact by way of radio communications through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), also illustrates the challenges of transmitting information across cultures. There is historical precedence for this, such as when Greek knowledge passed west through Arab translators in the 12th Century. This shows that it is possible for ideas to be revived, even from dead cultures, he said.
It's also quite possible that the language we receive across these indirect communications would be foreign to us. Even though mathematics is often cited as a universal language, Dick said there are actually two schools of thought. One theory is that there is, indeed, one kind of mathematics that is based on a Platonic idea, and the other theory is that mathematics is a construction of the culture that you are in.
"There will be a decipherment process. It might be more like the Mayan decipherments," Dick said.
The ethics of contact
As Dick came to a greater understanding about the potential c impact of extraterrestrial intelligence, he invited other scholars to present their findings along with him. Dick chaired a two-day NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Symposium called "Preparing for Discovery," which was intended to address the impact of finding any kind of life beyond Earth, whether microbial or some kind of intelligent, multicellular life form.
The symposium participants discussed how to move beyond human-centered views of defining life, how to understand the philosophical and theological problems a discovery would bring, and how to help the public understand the implications of a discovery.
"There is also the question of what I call astro-ethics," Dick said. "How do you treat alien life? How do you treat it differently, ranging from microbes to intelligence? So we had a philosopher at our symposium talking about the moral status of non-human organisms, talking in relation to animals on Earth and what their status is in relation to us."
Dick plans to collect the lectures in a book for publication next year, but he also spent his time at the library gathering materials for a second book about how discovering life beyond Earth will revolutionize our thinking.
"It's very farsighted for NASA to fund a position like this," Dick added. "They have all their programs in astrobiology, they fund the scientists, but here they fund somebody to think about what the implications might be. It's a good idea to do this, to foresee what might happen before it occurs."View Article Here Read More
Talk about reading between the lines! Scientists wielding X-rays say they can, for the first time, read words inside the charred, rolled-up scrolls that survived the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly two millenniums ago.
Researchers Daniel Delattre, left, and Emmanuel Brun observe the scroll before X-ray phase contrast imaging begins. (J. Delattre)
The findings, described in the journal Nature Communications, give hope to researchers who have until now been unable to read these delicate scrolls without serious risk of destroying them. The scrolls come from a library in Herculaneum, one of several Roman towns that, along with Pompeii, was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. This library, a small room in a large villa, held hundreds of handwritten papyrus scrolls that had been carbonized from a furnace-like blast of 608-degree-Fahrenheit gas produced by the volcano.
“This rich book collection, consisting principally of Epicurean philosophical texts, is a unique cultural treasure, as it is the only ancient library to survive together with its books,” the study authors wrote. “The texts preserved in these papyri, now mainly stored in the Officina dei Papiri in the National Library of Naples, had been unknown to scholars before the discovery of the Herculaneum library, since they had not been copied and recopied in late Antiquity, the middle ages and Renaissance.” So researchers have tried every which way to read these rare and valuable scrolls, which could open a singular window into a lost literary past. The problem is, these scrolls are so delicate that it’s nearly impossible to unroll them without harming them. That hasn’t kept other researchers from trying, however – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
“Different opening techniques, all less effective, have been tried over the years until the so-called ‘Oslo method’ was applied in the 1980s on two Herculaneum scrolls now in Paris with problematic results, since the method required the rolls to be picked apart into small pieces,” the study authors wrote. (Yikes.)
Any further attempts to physically open these scrolls were called off since then, they said, “because an excessive percentage of these ancient texts was irretrievably lost by the application of such methods.” This is where a technique like X-ray computed tomography, which could penetrate the rolled scrolls, would come in handy. The problem is, the ancient writers used ink made of carbon pulled from smoke residue. And because the papyrus had been carbonized from the blazing heat, both paper and ink are made of roughly the same stuff. Because the soot-based ink and baked paper have about the same density, until now it’s been practically impossible to tell ink and paper apart.
But a team led by Vito Mocella of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy, realized they could use a different technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. Unlike the standard X-ray CT scans, X-ray phase-contrast tomography examines phase shifts in the X-ray light as it passes through different structures. Using the technique, the scientists were able to make out a few words and letters from two scrolls, one of them still rolled.
Reading these scrolls is difficult; computer reconstructions of the rolled scroll reveal that the blast of volcanic material so damaged its once-perfect whorls that its cross section looks like a half-melted tree-ring pattern. The paper inside has been thoroughly warped, and some of the letters on the paper probably distorted almost beyond recognition. Nonetheless, the researchers were able to read a number of words and letters, which were about 2 to 3 millimeters in size. On an unrolled fragment of a scroll called “PHerc.Paris. 1,” they were able to make up the words for “would fall” and “would say.” In the twisted, distorted layers of the rolled-up papyrus called “PHerc.Paris. 4,” they could pick out individual letters: alpha, nu, eta, epsilon and others.
The letters in “PHerc.Paris. 4” are also written in a distinctive style with certain decorative flourishes that seemed very similar to a scroll called “PHerc. 1471,” which holds a text written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. The researchers think they were written in the second quarter of the first century BC.
Ultimately, the researchers wrote, this work was a proofof concept to give other researchers a safe and reliable way to explore ancient philosophical works that were until now off-limits to them.
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has been hunting the cosmos for exoplanets since March of 2009. In its nearly five years of searching the stars, it has found thousands of possible candidates. Scientists recently verified the thousandth planet Kepler had found, and even more exciting, they announced that Kepler had found three more Earth-like planets. Those three planets bring Kepler's Earth-like planet count to a total of eight. In order to qualify as "Earth-like," these exoplanets must be less than twice the size of the Earth and orbit their own sun within the habitable zone. This "Goldilocks zone" is a belt in solar systems where it's neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist.
"Each result from the planet-hunting Kepler mission's treasure trove of data takes us another step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “The Kepler team and its science community continue to produce impressive results with the data from this venerable explorer."
The Kepler team has also found super-Earths and gas giants like Jupiter around other stars. NASA artists compiled retro-style travel posters from three discovered planets. Kepler finds planets by watching distant stars for fluctuation in light. If the light hitting the telescope drops dramatically and then returns to normal levels, chances are a planet came in between the star and Kepler. Scientists can analyze the data and light filtered by the candidate planet's atmosphere to make guesses at the size, mass and composition.
"With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth," said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. "The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”
The space telescope actually has two crippled stabilizing gyros. But instead of giving up on the mission, engineers are using pressure from photons emitted by the sun to stabilize the telescope. The first space telescope looking for alien worlds is literally balancing on a sunbeam to continue its mission, and that's not science fiction, that's science fact.
Citizen scientists can also participate in the mission. The website PlanetHunters.org contains catalogs of data from K1, the original Kepler mission, and K2, the extended mission making use of the sun to balance the telescope. The K2 data has been sorted through, but Planet Hunters still needs help sifting through the K1 data. The website's instructions read:
"As the planet passes in front of (or transits) a star, it blocks out a small amount of the star’s light, making the star appear a little bit dimmer. You’re looking for points on the light curve that appear lower than the rest. When you spot a potential transit, mark each one on the light curve."