The latest analysis of data from the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft reveals that almost all stars have planets, and about 17 percent of stars have an Earth-sized planet in an orbit closer than Mercury. Since the Milky Way has about 100 billion stars, there are at least 17 billion Earth-sized worlds out there, according to Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), who presented new findings today in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California. Moreover, he said, almost all Sun-like stars have planetary systems.
The holy grail of planet-hunting is finding a twin of Earth – a planet of about the same size and in the habitable zone around similar star. The odds of finding such a planet is becoming more likely Fressin said, as the latest analysis shows that small planets are equally common around small and large stars.
While the list of Kepler planetary candidates contains majority of the knowledge we have about exoplanets, Fressin said the catalog is not yet complete, and the catalog is not pure. “There are false positives from events such as eclipsing binaries and other astrophysical configurations that can mimic planet signals,” Fressin said.
By doing a simulation of the Kepler survey and focusing on the false positives, they can only account for 9.5% of the huge number of Kepler candidates. The rest are bona-fide planets.
Each star in the Milky Way shines its light upon at least one companion planet, according to a new analysis that suddenly renders exoplanets commonplace, the rule rather than the exception. This means there are billions of worlds just in our corner of the cosmos. This is a major shift from just a few years ago, when many scientists thought planets were tricky to make, and therefore special things. Now we know they’re more common than stars themselves.
“Planets are like bunnies; you don’t just get one, you get a bunch,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved in this research. “So really, the number of planets in the Milky Way is probably like five or 10 times the number of stars. That’s something like a trillion planets.”
Of course there’s no way to know, at least not yet, how many of these worlds could be hospitable to forms of life as we know it. But the odds alone are tantalizing, Shostak said.
“It’s not unreasonable at this point to say there are literally billions of habitable worlds in our galaxy, probably as a lower limit,” he said. “Maybe they’re all sterile as an autoclave, but it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? That would make us very odd.”
Other astronomers maintain that we are odd indeed, and that increasing the known planet population does not increase the odds of finding intelligent life on any of them.
“The numbers are huge by any human standard, but we are still looking at only a tiny bit of our galaxy,” said John Gribbin, an astronomer and science writer who just published a book called “Alone in the Universe.” “[This research] does further our understanding of how things like planets form and how stars form, but there is a long way to go before we can say there is life on any of these planets, and further to go before we get to civilization.”
Image 2 | A Plethora of Planets: This artist’s impression shows how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. The planets, their orbits and their host stars are all vastly magnified compared to their real separations. A six-year search that surveyed millions of stars using a technique called microlensing concluded that every star has at least one planet orbiting around it. ESO/M. Kornmesser
Image 3 | A new analysis examined the frequencies of planets of different sizes based on findings from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, correcting for both incompleteness and false positives. The results show that one in six stars has an Earth-sized planet in a tight orbit. Credit: F. Fressin (CfA)
Image 4 | This artist’s illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Credit: C. Pulliam & D. Aguilar (CfA)