Since astronomers confirmed the presence of planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, humanity has wondered how many could harbor life. Now, we’re one step closer to finding an answer.
According to new research using data from NASA’s retired planet-hunting mission, the Kepler space telescope, about half the stars similar in temperature to our Sun could have a rocky planet capable of supporting liquid water on its surface.
Our galaxy holds at least an estimated 300 million of these potentially habitable worlds, based on even the most conservative interpretation of the results in a new study to be published in The Astronomical Journal.
Some of these exoplanets could even be our interstellar neighbors, with at least four potentially within 30 light-years of our Sun and the closest likely to be at most about 20 light-years from us. These are the minimum numbers of such planets based on the most conservative estimate that 7% of Sun-like stars host such worlds. However, at the average expected rate of 50%, there could be many more.
This research helps us understand the potential for these planets to have the elements to support life. This is an essential part of astrobiology, the study of life’s origins and future in our universe.
The study is authored by NASA scientists who worked on the Kepler mission alongside collaborators from around the world. NASA retired the space telescope in 2018 after it ran out of fuel. Nine years of the telescope’s observations revealed that there are billions of planets in our galaxy—more planets than stars.