Dr. Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Kepler Mission Project gives a public lecture about A Planet for Goldilocks: Kepler & the Search for Living Worlds –
NASA’s Kepler Mission launched in 2009 with the objective of finding “Goldilocks planets” orbiting other stars like our Sun. The space telescope opened our eyes to the many terrestrial-sized planets that populate the galaxy (including several right in our neighborhood,) as well as to exotic worlds unlike anything that exists in the solar system. Dr. Batalha gives an overview of the science legacy of the Kepler Mission and other key planet discoveries (including some results only a few weeks old). She also gives a preview of planet-finding missions to come.
Over the past couple decades, research has uncovered thousands of exoplanets in orbit around other stars. In particular, the NASA Kepler Mission taught us that Earth-sized planets are commonplace throughout the Galaxy. But the big question remains – did life take root on any of these distant worlds? Using upcoming large telescopes, astronomers will examine the atmospheres of Earth-like planets for the telltale chemical fingerprints of life. The search for life in the universe has entered an exciting new phase.
More exoplanet candidates have been spotted by the Kepler space observatory including 10 that are nearly the size of Earth and orbit in the habitable zone of their stars. The press release below describes the latest findings and here is a video of a NASA briefing held this morning:
NASA’s Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.
This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.
With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.
Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life.
The findings were presented at a news conference Monday at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.
“The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth,” said Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth.”
The Kepler space telescope hunts for planets by detecting the minuscule drop in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it, called a transit.
This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler’s observations during the first four years of its primary mission. This data will enable scientists to determine what planetary populations – from rocky bodies the size of Earth, to gas giants the size of Jupiter – make up the galaxy’s planetary demographics.
To ensure a lot of planets weren’t missed, the team introduced their own simulated planet transit signals into the data set and determined how many were correctly identified as planets. Then, they added data that appear to come from a planet, but were actually false signals, and checked how often the analysis mistook these for planet candidates. This work told them which types of planets were overcounted and which were undercounted by the Kepler team’s data processing methods.
“This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions – how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?” said Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and lead author of the catalog study.
One research group took advantage of the Kepler data to make precise measurements of thousands of planets, revealing two distinct groups of small planets. The team found a clean division in the sizes of rocky, Earth-size planets and gaseous planets smaller than Neptune. Few planets were found between those groupings.
Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the group measured the sizes of 1,300 stars in the Kepler field of view to determine the radii of 2,000 Kepler planets with exquisite precision.
“We like to think of this study as classifying planets in the same way that biologists identify new species of animals,” said Benjamin Fulton, doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and lead author of the second study. “Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree.”
It seems that nature commonly makes rocky planets up to about 75 percent bigger than Earth. For reasons scientists don’t yet understand, about half of those planets take on a small amount of hydrogen and helium that dramatically swells their size, allowing them to “jump the gap” and join the population closer to Neptune’s size.
The Kepler spacecraft continues to make observations in new patches of sky in its extended mission, searching for planets and studying a variety of interesting astronomical objects, from distant star clusters to objects such as the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-size planets, closer to home.
Ames manages the Kepler missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
ALMA has observed stars like the Sun at a very early stage in their formation and found traces of methyl isocyanate — a chemical building block of life. This is the first ever detection of this prebiotic molecule towards solar-type protostars, the sort from which our Solar System evolved. The discovery could help astronomers understand how life arose on Earth.
“This star system seems to keep on giving! Following the discovery of sugars, we’ve now found methyl isocyanate. This family of organic molecules is involved in the synthesis of peptides and amino acids, which, in the form of proteins, are the biological basis for life as we know it” .
ALMA’s capabilities allowed both teams to observe the molecule at several different and characteristic wavelengths across the radio spectrum. They found the unique chemical fingerprints located in the warm, dense inner regions of the cocoon of dust and gas surrounding young stars in their earliest stages of evolution. Each team identified and isolated the signatures of the complex organic molecule methyl isocyanate . They then followed this up with computer chemical modelling and laboratory experiments to refine our understanding of the molecule’s origin .
IRAS 16293-2422 is a multiple system of very young stars, around 400 light-years away in a large star-forming region called Rho Ophiuchi in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). The new results from ALMA show that methyl isocyanate gas surrounds each of these young stars.
Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed from the material left over after the formation of the Sun. Studying solar-type protostars can therefore open a window to the past for astronomers and allow them to observe conditions similar to those that led to the formation of our Solar System over 4.5 billion years ago.
Rafael Martín-Doménech and Víctor M. Rivilla, lead authors of one of the papers, comment:
“We are particularly excited about the result because these protostars are very similar to the Sun at the beginning of its lifetime, with the sort of conditions that are well suited for Earth-sized planets to form. By finding prebiotic molecules in this study, we may now have another piece of the puzzle in understanding how life came about on our planet.”
Niels Ligterink is delighted with the supporting laboratory results:
“Besides detecting molecules we also want to understand how they are formed. Our laboratory experiments show that methyl isocyanate can indeed be produced on icy particles under very cold conditions that are similar to those in interstellar space This implies that this molecule — and thus the basis for peptide bonds — is indeed likely to be present near most new young solar-type stars.”
 A complex organic molecule is defined in astrochemistry as consisting of six or more atoms, where at least one of the atoms is carbon. Methyl isocyanate contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the chemical configuration CH3NCO. This very toxic substance was the main cause of death following the tragic Bhopal industrial accident in 1984.
 The team led by Rafael Martín-Doménech used new and archive data of the protostar taken across a large range of wavelengths across ALMA’s receiver Bands 3, 4 and 6. Niels Ligterink and his colleagues used data from the ALMA Protostellar Interferometric Line Survey (PILS), which aims to chart the chemical complexity of IRAS 16293-2422 by imaging the full wavelength range covered by ALMA’s Band 7 on very small scales, equivalent to the size of our Solar System.
 The teams carried out spectrographic analysis of the protostar’s light to determine the chemical constituents. The amount of methyl isocyanate they detected — the abundance — with respect to molecular hydrogen and other tracers is comparable to previous detections around two high-mass protostars (i.e. within the massive hot molecular cores of Orion KL and Sagittarius B2 North).
 Martín-Doménech’s team chemically modelled gas-grain formation of methyl isocyanate. The observed amount of the molecule could be explained by chemistry on the surface of dust grains in space, followed by chemical reactions in the gas phase. Moreover, Ligterink’s team demonstrated that the molecule can be formed at extremely cold interstellar temperatures, down to 15 Kelvin (–258 degrees Celsius), using cryogenic ultra-high-vacuum experiments in their laboratory in Leiden.
An exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered a “super-Earth” orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. This, along with the fact that it passes in front of its parent stars as it orbits, makes it one of the most exciting future targets for atmospheric studies. The results will appear in the 20 April 2017 issue of the journal Nature.
The newly discovered super-Earth LHS 1140b orbits in the habitable zone around a faint red dwarf star, named LHS 1140, in the constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster) . Red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun and, although LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it only receives about half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth and lies in the middle of the habitable zone. The orbit is seen almost edge-on from Earth and as the exoplanet passes in front of the star once per orbit it blocks a little of its light every 25 days.
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Cambridge, USA). “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
“The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable — LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars,” explains team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland .
For life as we know it to exist, a planet must have liquid surface water and retain an atmosphere. When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them. In this case, the planet’s large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.
This artist’s impression video shows an imaginary trip to the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. Credit: ESO/spaceengine.org
The discovery was initially made with the MEarth facility, which detected the first telltale, characteristic dips in light as the exoplanet passed in front of the star. ESO’s HARPS instrument, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, then made crucial follow-up observations which confirmed the presence of the super-Earth. HARPS also helped pin down the orbital period and allowed the exoplanet’s mass and density to be deduced .
The astronomers estimate the age of the planet to be at least five billion years. They also deduced that it has a diameter 1.4 times larger than the Earth — almost 18 000 kilometres. But with a mass around seven times greater than the Earth, and hence a much higher density, it implies that the exoplanet is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.
This super-Earth may be the best candidate yet for future observations to study and characterise its atmosphere, if one exists. Two of the European members of the team, Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils both at the CNRS and IPAG in Grenoble, France, conclude:
“The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1. This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!” [4,5].
In particular, observations coming up soon with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be able to assess exactly how much high-energy radiation is showered upon LHS 1140b, so that its capacity to support life can be further constrained.
Further into the future — when new telescopes like ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope are operating — it is likely that we will be able to make detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, and LHS 1140b is an exceptional candidate for such studies.
 The habitable zone is defined by the range of orbits around a star, for which a planet possesses the appropriate temperature needed for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.
 Although the planet is located in the zone in which life as we know it could potentially exist, it probably did not enter this region until approximately forty million years after the formation of the red dwarf star. During this phase, the exoplanet would have been subjected to the active and volatile past of its host star. A young red dwarf can easily strip away the water from the atmosphere of a planet forming within its vicinity, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect similar to that on Venus.
 This effort enabled other transit events to be detected by MEarth so that the astronomers could nail down the detection of the exoplanet once and for all.
 The planet around Proxima Centauri (eso1629) is much closer to Earth, but it probably does not transit its star, making it very difficult to determine whether it holds an atmosphere.
 Unlike the TRAPPIST-1 system (eso1706), no other exoplanets around LHS 1140 have been found. Multi-planet systems are thought to be common around red dwarfs, so it is possible that additional exoplanets have gone undetected so far because they are too small.