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Kepler-186f: The First Earth-size Habitable Zone Planet of Another Star

The 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 is half the size and mass of the sun.  Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech Kepler-186 and the Solar System

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.

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.”

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.

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f , the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size Planet in the Habitable Zone

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.

“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Quintana. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”

Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. On the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.

“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has,” said Thomas Barclay, research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

The four companion planets, Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d, and Kepler-186e, whiz around their sun every four, seven, 13, and 22 days, respectively, making them too hot for life as we know it. These four inner planets all measure less than 1.5 times the size of Earth.

The next steps in the search for distant life include looking for true Earth-twins — Earth-size planets orbiting within the habitable zone of a sun-like star — and measuring the their chemical compositions. The Kepler Space Telescope, which simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, is NASA’s first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun.

Ames is responsible for Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations, and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach.  The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

Twitter: @NASAKepler
Facebook: www.facebook.com/nasaskeplermission

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Falcon 9 Rocket Launch

On October 7, 2012, I was lucky enough to witness the live launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon lab perched atop.  The rocket was bound for the International Space Station, to deliver 1,000 pounds worth of cargo, science experiments, and ice cream, to the astronauts in orbit.  This marks the first time in US history that a commercial vehicle, hailing from US soil, is making such a trip.  And it fulfilled one of my childhood dreams.  Ever since I was a small child and saw my first Star Wars movie, I wanted to go into space.  Witnessing this launch was an amazing experience.  I was moved to tears as I watched that rocket climb into the sky, knowing that the future of human space flight and exploration had completely changed at 8:35 PM that Sunday.  I felt a sense of pride in my country and in my fellow man.  Once again, the possibilities of life on this planet and beyond are endless.  Dreams of travel to distant planets have been reignited.  And not only did I have the privilege to witness such a spectacular event, I was able to be part of a small group of social media contacts.  I met some fantastic people I would have never met otherwise, and we all expanded our social horizons, which is what social media is all about.

In addition to this flight being the first commercial cargo resupply in American history, this also marks the first time refrigerated units are able to be sent back to space, since the decommissioning of the shuttle program.  And when the Dragon is sent home, she’ll have those same refrigeration units to bring back experiments that need to stay cool.  But almost as important as science is the fact that we were able to send real ice cream to the men and women orbiting the planet.  SpaceX and NASAs ice cream of choice? Blue Bell Vanilla with Chocolate Swirl apparently.

While Jen was live-tweeting the whole time, she heard some amazing quotes and interesting facts.

From NASA administrator Charlie Bolden

“Our space technology program is developing technology we need for tomorrow’s missions.”
“We are once again launching space craft out of US space ports to our astronauts.”
“The plan is to get humans into the Martian atmosphere between 2030 and 2039.”
“This is an incredible “in” for the way of commercial space crews.”
“We have to find innovative ways to do better, the things we have done in the past.”
“What we have done, with the President’s leadership, is put our faith in American industry.”

From SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell

“Tomorrow’s SpaceX launch begins a new era in commercial space flight.”
“We’re making steady progress in making the next generation of deep-space travel.”
“We’re a launch company. I’m excited every time we get to do a launch.”
“We hope to be part of the partnership [with NASA] to go to Mars.”

From Lori Garver, NASA’s Deputy Administrator

“We want to be able to reduce operational costs so we can focus on the science.”
“To me, I really like the quiet of the touchdown and the completion of the mission.”

From Sam Scimemi, director of the International Space Station

“Our goal is to have US capability to fly a crew by 2017.”

And our favorite fun facts

“Falcon is named for the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars movie.”
“The more fish you eat in space, the less bone density you lose.”

Jen took lots of pictures.  You can find them here, under our Photos page.  Here are a few of our favorites:

NASA at twilight
NASA at twilight
Before the rocket launch
Before the rocket launch
Liftoff!
Liftoff!

Here’s our footage of the the Falcon 9 rocket rising in preparation for the launch:

And here’s our footage of the actual launch:

Jen is also putting together some more video, so that’ll be available soon!

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Launch Day!

Although now technically the day after the launch…

The launch was amazing.  I was moved to tears at the sight of it.  This entire experience has been incredible.  I’ve met some great people, seen some awesome science, and got to realize a dream of mine that I wasn’t sure would ever come to pass.  The moral of the story?  Go big or go home.

Jen will be making a page to chronicle all her adventures from the weekend, but we will leave you this picture of the Falcon 9 rocket as it left the ground, headed for the International Space Station.

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T-Minus 1 Day!

Jen flew into Orlando this morning.  Not much for her to report as of yet, but her plans include the science and pre-launch briefings today, and a chance to meet some other SpaceTweeps.

We updated the page so you can see Jen’s latest tweets right from the home page.  Stay tuned for live tweeting, blog summaries, pictures and video over the weekend!  Jen is still very excited, and has been telling anyone who will listen about her upcoming adventure.  It earned her some new friends on the flight down this morning. 🙂