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If you’re eager to find aliens, this is great news

Published Nov 10th, 2020 12:10AM EST
habitable exoplanets
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • A new study suggests that habitable exoplanets may be plentiful in our home galaxy, The Milky Way.
  • Researchers crunched data on thousands of exoplanets that were discovered using NASA’s Kepler space telescope.
  • Unfortunately, while future advancements in telescope technology may allow us to spot habitable worlds, we likely won’t be able to visit them for a long, long time to come.

The Milky Way is huge. I mean really, really huge. It’s been estimated that our home galaxy is home to up to 400 billion stars. We live in orbit around just one of those stars, and it’s provided us with the energy we need to sustain life on our planet. But what about the countless other planets in our galaxy?

A new study suggests that if we’re hunting for habitable worlds, other stars like our Sun are perhaps our best bet. In fact, the researchers that published their work in The Astronomical Journal crunched the numbers and have estimated that there may be as many as 300 million habitable planets in our home galaxy.

The study focused on data gleaned from exoplanet surveys conducted between 2009 and 2018. NASA’s Kepler exoplanet-hunting satellite provided scientists with an incredible wealth of information about the makeup of distant planets and the stars they orbit. Now, using that information, the researchers believe they can make an educated projection of how prevalent Earth-like worlds really are.

The “rocky, habitable worlds” of our galaxy may be so common that one out of every two sun-like stars has one in its orbit. If that figure is even close to true, it would mean millions of habitable worlds lurking elsewhere in our galaxy. Of course, whether or not those planets host life is another question entirely, and one that we’re not likely to answer any time soon.

In the near future, hardware like the James Webb Space Telescope will provide researchers with even more information regarding exoplanets, including a detailed analysis of their atmospheres from afar. When that data comes back, it might be enough to suss out biosignatures, or elements of the atmosphere that point to the presence of life. If that happens, it will be incredibly exciting, but it will also mean that we’ll have to stare at these distant planets and wonder if life is truly thriving there.

Put simply, we don’t yet have the technology to reliably send humans to other planets in our own solar system, much less travel through interstellar space to other nearby stars in search of life. Our observational technology has outpaced our ability to actually visit the things we’re looking at, so while we may think we’ve spotted habitable worlds — or even worlds where life exists in some form — we likely won’t be able to confirm those findings for quite some time.

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