Tens of billions of potentially habitable, Earth-size planets in our galaxy, say astronomers

The nearest such planet may be within 12 light-years
November 6, 2013

Artist’s representation of the “habitable zone,” the range of orbits where liquid water is permitted on the surface of a planet. The authors find that 22% of Sun-like stars harbor a planet between one and two times the size of Earth in the habitable zone. (Credit: UC Berkeley)

One in five stars in our galaxy like the Sun have planets about the size of Earth and a surface temperature conducive to life, astronomers at UC Berkeley and University of Hawaii, Manoa now estimate.

The estimate was based on a statistical analysis of all the Kepler observations of NASA’s Kepler space telescope of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy.

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.

Earth-size may not mean habitable

“For NASA, this discovery is really important, because future missions will try to take an actual picture of a planet, and the size of the telescope they have to build depends on how close the nearest Earth-size planets are,” Howard said. “An abundance of planets orbiting nearby stars simplifies such follow-up missions.”

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.

“Some may have thick atmospheres, making it so hot at the surface that DNA-like molecules would not survive. Others may have rocky surfaces that could harbor liquid water suitable for living organisms,” Marcy said. “We don’t know what range of planet types and their environments are suitable for life.”

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.

Transiting planets

NASA launched the Kepler space telescope in 2009 to look for planets outside the solar system that cross in front of, or transit, their stars, which causes a slight diminution — about one hundredth of 1 percent — in the star’s brightness. From among the 150,000 stars photographed every 30 minutes for four years, NASA’s Kepler team reported more than 3,000 planet candidates. Many of these are much larger than Earth — ranging from large planets with thick atmospheres, like Neptune, to gas giants like Jupiter — or in orbits so close to their stars that they are roasted.

To sort them out, Petigura and his colleagues are using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii to obtain spectra of as many stars as possible. This will help them determine each star’s true brightness and calculate the diameter of each transiting planet, with an emphasis on Earth-diameter planets.

Independently, Petigura, Howard and Marcy focused on the 42,000 stars that are like the sun or slightly cooler and smaller, and found 603 candidate planets orbiting them. Only 10 of these were Earth-size, that is, one to two times the diameter of Earth and orbiting their star at a distance where they are heated to lukewarm temperatures suitable for life. The team’s definition of habitable is that a planet receives between four times and one-quarter the amount of light that Earth receives from the sun.

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 to measure how many habitable-zone, Earth-size planets they missed.

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.

“The primary goal of the Kepler mission was to answer the question, ‘When you look up in the night sky, what fraction of the stars that you see have Earth-size planets at lukewarm temperatures so that water would not be frozen into ice or vaporized into steam, but remain a liquid, because liquid water is now understood to be the prerequisite for life?’” Marcy said. “Until now, no one knew exactly how common potentially habitable planets were around sun-like stars in the galaxy.”

All of the potentially habitable planets found in the team’s survey are around K stars, which are cooler and slightly smaller than the sun, Petigura said. But the researchers’ analysis shows that the result for K stars can be extrapolated to G stars like the sun. Had Kepler survived for an extended mission, it would have obtained enough data to directly detect a handful of Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of G-type stars.

“If the stars in the Kepler field are representative of stars in the solar neighborhood, … then the nearest (Earth-size) planet is expected to orbit a star that is less than 12 light-years from Earth and can be seen by the unaided eye,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Future instrumentation to image and take spectra of these Earths need only observe a few dozen nearby stars to detect a sample of Earth-size planets residing in the habitable zones of their host stars.”

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.

The research was funded by UC Berkeley and the National Science Foundation, with the assistance of the W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA.

UPDATE Nov. 7, 2013:

“This is the first measurement of the prevalence of planets the size and temperature of Earth orbiting stars like our Sun,” Howard explained to KurzweilAI. ”This question has fascinated humans for the past century and indeed back to the ancient Greeks. Up until now, estimates were limited to philosophy, speculation, or extrapolation. We provided the first measurement based on the discovery of real Earth-size planets orbiting real Sun-like stars.

“Our result is pure knowledge about the prevalence of planets orbiting other stars. It does not have practical uses. The New York stock exchange will not budge a penny at the news about Earth-like planets. Still, all of humanity is richer. We become richer when great music is written or performed, or when great poetry is written.

“We are enriched, too, by insights we gain about our purpose in life and our contributions to future generations.  The discovery of Earth-like planets puts our beautiful home planet into a cosmic perspective and gives us knowledge about our place in our Galactic community.”


Abstract of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper

Determining whether Earth-like planets are common or rare looms as a touchstone in the question of life in the universe. We searched for Earth-size planets that cross in front of their host stars by examining the brightness measurements of 42,000 stars from National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler mission. We found 603 planets, including 10 that are Earth size and receive comparable levels of stellar energy to that of Earth. We account for Kepler’s imperfect detectability of such planets by injecting synthetic planet–caused dimmings into the Kepler brightness measurements and recording the fraction detected. We find that 11 ± 4% of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet receiving between one and four times the stellar intensity as Earth. We also find that the occurrence of Earth-size planets is constant with increasing orbital period (P), within equal intervals of logP up to ∼200 d. Extrapolating, one finds % of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet with orbital periods of 200–400 d.