NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers First Earth-Size Planet in ‘Habitable Zone’

Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our Sun.

The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth, and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.

“The discovery of Kepler-186f is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind’s quest to find truly Earth-like worlds.”

This diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is half the size and mass of the Sun. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

This diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is half the size and mass of the Sun. Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.

Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system, about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four companion planets, which orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

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