Kepler 452b: Is there anybody out there?

Ladies and gents, we may very well have found Earth's cousin, 1,400 light years away from us!

In continuation of my effort to promote science and education in this country and in the hope that we can, for a short time each week, move on from politics, I want to talk about another spacecraft: Kepler.

Ever since the dawn of science, human beings have wondered if there are other earthlike worlds out there, which support life like us. We have looked up into space to try to find such worlds. This idea is so entrancing to us that we now have cults believing in alien abduction and programmes on History Channel talking about how everything built in the ancient world was because of our alien overlords. While alien abductions and the like have no scientific basis behind them and these ideas are basically a bunch of baloney, we still want to find out if there is life out there.

Which brings me to Kepler. This fascinating space observatory was launched by NASA in 2009, and its mission was to survey a region of our galaxy the Milky Way, to discover Earth sized planets existing near or in the habitable zone.

The idea basically is that moving forward from what we currently know and understand about the laws of physics, the most likely planets to have life would be similar to Earth and would exist in an area around their star, where the temperature allows water to exist in liquid form.

Kepler has been very vigilant and has provided information about 1030 exoplanets. Based on its data it was reported that there could be 40 billion Earth sized planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way out of which 11 billion could be orbiting Sun-like stars. Very recently there have been three that are in the habitable zone and two of these are Earth-sized.

Enter Kepler 452 b, a planet reported on Thursday, which orbits its star at a similar distance to that of the Earth (in the habitable zone but with a 60% larger radius). Scientists involved in the mission report that this was the most Earth like planet yet. The star around which it orbits is 10% larger than our Sun and the planet completes one orbit in 385 days (compared to 365 days for Earth).

This is the first near Earth sized planet, orbiting the habitable zone of a Sun like star. Ladies and gents, we may very well have found Earth's cousin, 1,400 light years away from us! NASA scientist John Grunsfeld has called this Earth 2.0. If Kepler 452 b turns out to be a rocky planet (this is yet to be confirmed), this bodes well for further research on whether there is liquid water, an atmosphere and thus some form of life on it.

And Kepler is not the only spacecraft. In 2017, TESS, another planet hunter will be launched and the year after that the James Webb Space Telescope will go up. Both of these will provide further information on other planets.

What an amazing time to be alive and what a privilege to be a part of our quest to understand our cosmos and therefore ourselves. But most importantly, what an opportunity to confirm that we are not alone!

Saima Baig

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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