Based on a statistical analysis of all the Kepler observations, astronomers at UC Berkeley and University of Hawaii, Manoa now estimate that one in five stars like the sun have planets about the size of Earth and a surface temperature conducive to life.
Given that about 20 percent of stars are sun-like, the researchers say, that amounts to several tens of billions of potentially habitable, Earth-size planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.
“When you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis of the Kepler data.
“It’s been nearly 20 years since the discovery of the first extrasolar planet around a normal star. Since then, we have learned that most stars have planets of some size orbiting them, and that Earth-size planets are relatively common in close-in orbits that are too hot for life,” said Andrew Howard, a former UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow who is now on the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. “With this result, we’ve come home, in a sense, by showing that planets like our Earth are relatively common throughout the Milky Way Galaxy
The team cautioned that Earth-size planets in orbits about the size of Earth’s are not necessarily hospitable to life, even if they reside in the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is not too hot and not too cold.
Last week, however, Howard, Marcy and their colleagues provided hope that many such planets actually are rocky and could support liquid water. They reported that one Earth-size planet discovered by Kepler – albeit, a planet with a likely temperature of 2,000 Kelvin, which is far too hot for life as we know it – is the same density as Earth and most likely composed of rock and iron, like Earth.
“This gives us some confidence that when we look out into the habitable zone, the planets Erik is describing may be Earth-size, rocky planets,” Howard said.
A census of extrasolar planets
What distinguishes the team’s analysis from previous analyses of Kepler data is that they subjected Petigura’s planet-finding algorithms to a battery of tests in order to measure how many habitable zone, Earth-size planets they missed. Petigura actually introduced fake planets into the Kepler data in order to determine which ones his software could detect and which it couldn’t.
Accounting for missed planets, as well as the fact that only a small fraction of planets are oriented so that they cross in front of their host star as seen from Earth, allowed them to estimate that 22 percent of all sun-like stars in the galaxy have Earth-size planets in their habitable zones.
In January, the team reported a similar analysis of Kepler data for scorched planets that orbit close to their stars. The new, more complete analysis shows that “nature makes about as many planets in hospitable orbits as in close-in orbits,” Howard said.