Earth-like Planets Are Right Next Door
Using publicly available data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have found that six percent of red dwarf stars have habitable, Earth-sized planets. Since red dwarfs are the most common stars in our galaxy, the closest Earth-like planet could be just 13 light-years away.
“We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,” said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing (CfA).
Dressing presented her findings today in a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
Red dwarf stars are smaller, cooler, and fainter than our Sun. An average red dwarf is only one-third as large and one-thousandth as bright as the Sun. From Earth, no red dwarf is visible to the naked eye.
Despite their dimness, these stars are good places to look for Earth-like planets. Red dwarfs make up three out of every four stars in our galaxy for a total of at least 75 billion. The signal of a transiting planet is larger since the star itself is smaller, so an Earth-sized world blocks more of the star’s disk. And since a planet has to orbit a cool star closer in order to be in the habitable zone, it’s more likely to transit from our point of view.
More: CfA Press Room