Earth-like planets are right next door

Life on such a planet would be "much older and more evolved than life on Earth"
February 7, 2013

Artist’s conception of a hypothetical habitable planet with two moons orbiting a red dwarf star (credit: David A. Aguilar, CfA)

Six percent of red-dwarf stars have habitable, Earth-sized planets, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have found.

Red dwarfs are the most common stars in our galaxy; about 75 percent of the closest stars are red dwarfs. The closest Earth-like planet could be just 13 light-years away, Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing calculated.

“We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,” said (CfA).

Red dwarf stars are smaller, cooler, and fainter than our Sun. An average red dwarf is only one-third as large and one-thousandth as bright as the Sun.

Dressing culled the Kepler catalog of 158,000 target stars to identify all the red dwarfs. She then reanalyzed those stars to calculate more accurate sizes and temperatures. She found that almost all of those stars were smaller and cooler than previously thought.

A new SETI?

Locating nearby Earth-like worlds may require a dedicated small space telescope, or a large network of ground-based telescopes. Follow-up studies with instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope could tell us whether any warm, transiting planets have an atmosphere and further probe its chemistry.

Since red dwarf stars live much longer than Sun-like stars, this discovery raises the interesting possibility that life on such a planet would be much older and more evolved than life on Earth.

Dressing presented her findings today in a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.