New Castle News

Editorials

November 5, 2013

Our Opinion: New data suggests billions of potentially habitable worlds

NEW CASTLE — How many planets similar to Earth are out there?

Would you believe 8.8 billion?

That’s the latest estimate drawn up from NASA data provided by the space-based and now crippled Kepler telescope. Kepler has been instrumental when it comes to peering deep into space in the search for planets circling distant stars.

Calculations released this week indicate that one in every five stars in the Milky Way that are similar to Earth’s sun can be expected to have a planet circling it that is akin to Earth — meaning the planet is considered the right size and distance from its sun for supporting life.

That translates into 8.8 billion other worlds in the galaxy that could host life — a figure that some researchers suggest may be conservative.

Of course, it’s not that cut and dried. These figures remain a calculation, rather than an absolute certainty.

And even if these figures accurately reflect reality, that doesn’t mean all of these planets are literally Earth-like. They may not have the building blocks necessary to support life, particularly oxygen, carbon and water.

As technology improves, the exploration of deep space for habitable planets will become more accurate. The advances in just the last few years are nothing short of amazing as the number of known planets has grown and identifiable ones have reduced in size.

Better techniques for assessing these distant planets should further refine the most likely locations for life elsewhere in the universe. And plans are already in the works for the launching of telescopes that are more sensitive than Kepler.

So what does all of this mean?

Well, if scientists can identify potentially habitable planets with atmospheres and other qualities necessary to support life, the next step will be to determine if any radio signals are emanating from that part of space. Countless science fiction tales aside, years-old radio transmissions may be the only way Earth can have contact with other worlds.

And that’s only assuming a viable planet has produced a species comparable to humans that can develop broadcasting technology. The likelihood of that remains unclear.

With Earth being the only known habitable planet in the universe, it remains impossible to fully gauge what else could be out there. But as humanity’s ability to scan the heavens improves, a more accurate picture eventually will emerge.

Yet it’s worth pointing out that after years of examination, no confirmed radio signal from another planet has reached Earth. Does that suggest intelligent life is extremely rare in the universe? Or is it possible that intelligent beings elsewhere have not advanced to the point of being able to produce radio transmissions?

These are important and fascinating questions. And it’s enticing to think that some of the answers may be provided in the not-too-distant future.

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