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Kepler Space Telescope Data Reveals Billions Of Earth-Like Planets Near Earth

Reddwarfandearth

First Posted: 02/06/13 EST Updated: 02/07/13 EST

If ET phones home today, his long distance charge might not be as much as people believed when Steven Spielberg's classic film came out three decades ago.

That's because recent data from NASA's Kepler space telescope suggests that billions of Earth-like planets are much closer than ever before imagined.

"The information we presented today will excite the general public because we now know that the nearest potentially Earth-like world is likely within 13 light years of the sun," astronomer Courtney Dressing said in an email to The Huffington Post.

"Astronomically speaking, 13 light years is practically next door."

While we don't know if intelligent life exists on any of these planets, it raises the chances of that possibility.

Watch this video about the red dwarf suns and Earth-like planets:

The scientific team studied the huge number of red dwarf stars in our galaxy -- stars that are smaller and have a longer life span than our own sun.

Just doing the math, the odds of Earth-like planets in our galaxy are, well, astronomical.

Scientists estimate 6 percent of the 75 billion red dwarf stars may have Earth-size planets orbiting them at a possible habitable distance. That works out to approximately 4.5 billion Earths out there.

"Before today, it could have been that Earth-like planets did not exist, or that they were so rare that the closest one would be beyond the reach of any telescope we might construct. Thus we would never know whether or not we were truly alone," astronomer David Charbonneau told HuffPost in an email.

Charbonneau, co-author of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics study, acknowledges the intense interest the public has in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"I would say that the single greatest question in all of science is 'Are we alone?' The announcement today moves the ball downfield significantly toward answering this question.

"In my conversations with people around the world, I have found that this great question provides enormous perspective on our lives, in much the same way that knowing the physical size of the Universe has humbled our view of our place in the cosmos," Charbonneau said.

But even if a planet like Earth is only a stone's throw away, at 13 light years from us, how could we even see it with our current technology?

"Future missions, such as the NASA James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble) and proposed extremely large ground-based telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope, will be able to probe the atmospheres of nearby habitable planets," Dressing said.

"Those missions will be able to search for biosignatures, like oxygen, and possibly lead to the first announcement of life on another world."

The results of Dressing's and Charbonneau's study will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.