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NASA’s Kepler Astronomer Geoff Marcy Discusses Latest Exoplanet Discoveries

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Astronomers associated with NASA’s Kepler observatory have announced the discovery of more than 1,200 new candidate exoplanets. Michael Shara, a curator in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, writes about the significance of the findings below.

Does life exist anywhere in the universe except on Earth?  “Star Trek” may have convinced much of the public that the universe is teeming with technological civilizations, but the correct answer is: We don’t know for certain if life–even bacterial life — exists anywhere except on Earth.  A critical challenge in answering this question is determining whether planets — especially Earth-like planets — orbit other stars.

The search for Earth-like planets has just taken a giant leap forward, thanks in part to the tireless work of the dozens of astronomers associated with NASA’s Kepler observatory.  Their quest to find exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than our Sun — has been a stunning success.  It is now certain that planets are as common stars.

Fifteen years ago the University of California, Berkeley’s Geoff Marcy and a handful of colleagues began an almost quixotic quest for exoplanets.  Dozens, and then hundreds of astronomers joined the quest after Geneva’s Michel Mayor, Marcy, and their colleagues began reporting the first discoveries.  Herculean efforts led to the cataloguing of 500 exoplanets by the end of 2010.  Now the Kepler team has announced the discovery of more than 1,200 new candidate exoplanets, and enough details about each of these new worlds to begin to draw far-reaching conclusions about abodes for life in the universe.

Even more remarkable is that 58 planetary candidates were found to be approximately Earth-sized and falling in a temperature range where water can be liquid on a planet’s surface.

“In one dramatic announcement, astronomers have just tripled the number of known planets in the universe,” Marcy said.  “More impressive is that over half of them, 663, are smaller than four times the diameter of Earth.  These numerous worlds of nearly- Earth size bode well for the prospects of finding habitable, Earth-like planets some day.

Only two million years ago, we Homo sapiens climbed down from the trees to traipse across the East African Savannah.  Only about 100,000 years ago we ventured out of Africa, destined to explore the entire globe.  Now we are reaching out to new worlds, actual new worlds, where we hope to learn if our home Earth is common or rare in the universe.  Every child within us would love to know how commonly other planets spawn life, and how often that life evolves toward intelligent, communicative critters with the dexterity to build their own vessels of exploration.  With Kepler’s discovery of hundreds of nearly Earth-sized worlds, we humans are taking our first steps toward finding our kindred spirits among the stars.”

Read the complete Kepler Mission findings by clicking here.

We recently sat down with Geoff Marcy at the 217th American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Washington, and discussed exoplanets, their host stars and how the Kepler Mission is searching for Earth-like planets and signs of life in the universe.  Watch below:


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