Kepler-186f is about 500 light years away, but scientists believe the distant planet is something of a cousin to Earth and may be the best chance of finding life in the far reaches of space.
Researchers were studying the Earth-like planet using the Kepler Space Telescope, and believe that the newly found planet has the right conditions to accommodate life. It lies in what they call the “Goldilocks Zone,” which is not too hot and not too cold.
Kepler-186f is also the right size to contain life, scientists add. While most of the discoveries within the hospitable zone have been much larger than Earth, the newly found planet is about 10 percent of Earth’s size.
“We know Earth is special because it had the right distance (to its star) and size,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Kepler-186f is now the closest planet in size to Earth in the habitable zone of another star.”
They believe that Kepler-186f contains a rocky surface like Earth, rather than a gaseous surface found on other planets. It also appears to have the ability to contain liquid water. Both are conditions scientists believe are necessary to support life.
“We don’t fully understand what makes a planet habitable, so we look for what we know,” said theoretical astrophysicist Brad Hansen of UCLA, who was not involved in the finding. “The basic assumption is that you need to have a rocky surface to stand on and liquid water for life to use.”
Researchers studying the planet hope that the discovery can lead to more research funding, and are asking NASA for $32 million to continue their work.
“The senior review committee is looking at all the missions up there and deciding which to continue funding,” Ball’s Kepler program manager John Troeltzsch said.
Scientists hope that funding would allow them to learn more about Kepler-186f and determine if its climate could truly support life.