As the population on Earth continues to grow, Harvard scientists may have just stumbled upon some additional space—in the solar system. Earth-like planets, defined by the researchers as planets comparable in size and temperature to Earth, may be as close as 13 light years away, according a study conducted by third-year graduate student Courtney D. Dressing and astronomy professor David Charbonneau.
Using public data available from NASA’s Kepler mission, a project tasked with measuring changes in the brightness of stars, Dressing set out to “find out how common planets like the earth are in the galaxy.”
Dressing and Charbonneau searched the orbits of red dwarf stars—the most commonly found stars in the Milky Way galaxy—for planets similar in size and temperature to Earth.
By measuring the extent to which a planet eclipsed the light of a nearby star, the researchers discovered that about six percent of red dwarf stars have earth-like planets in their orbits. Red dwarf stars are both smaller and cooler than the Sun.
According to Dressing and Charbonneau, based on the results of the study, the search for habitable planets may be far more fruitful than previously thought.
Charbonneau said the next step in their research is to ascertain which of these earth-like planets is the closest to Earth. After this, both he and Dressing hope to conduct further research about life on these planets—a plan that is contingent upon the completion of a large telescope, most likely the Giant Magellan Telescope that is currently under construction in Chile.
The GMT will “be one of the next class of super giant earth-based telescopes that promises to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe,” according to the telescope’s official website. The project has a planned end date of 2023.
According to the researchers, these later phases of the study, once complete, might allow for scientists to continue the search for potential extraterrestrial life forms.
“What everybody really wants to know is: are we alone?” Charbonneau said. “[Dressing’s] discovery is a very important step toward answering that question.”
—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jessicabarzilay.