msnbc: Looking for Alien Earths? Here they come

As technology advances with the use of high powered telescopes and high tech satellites our view of planetary systems is changing. Msnbcs science editor discusses these scientific breakthroughs.

Dec. 11, 2009

Space probes pick up exoplanets galore, beginning with the weirder ones

By Alan Boyle

Science editor

Scientists are on their way to discovering thousands of new planets, potentially including hundreds of worlds the size of Earth, in Earth-like orbits around sunlike stars. They expect to achieve that goal within three years or so. But they'll start with the weirdest worlds.

The most advanced planet-hunting probes — the European Space Agency's COROT satellite and NASA's Kepler spacecraft — are designed to spot close-in planets most easily. That means the first revelations will be about planets in orbits much smaller than Mercury's.

So when Kepler's scientists announce their first official results next month, expect to hear about "hot Jupiters" and "super-Earths" whirling so close to their stars that they sizzle. And you just might hear about phenomena so strange that the scientists can hardly believe their instruments.

"I was not prescient enough to anticipate something that we're seeing," David Latham, a mission co-investigator from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told "There are some good things coming."

Kepler's principal investigator, William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center, expects that his science team will present about 30 papers at next month's American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington.

"We have planets to announce, and we will have planets to announce next year — quite a few more, in fact," he said.

Borucki said some of the results being turned up by Kepler are so unusual that he's not sure when the team will be ready to go public with them. "The worst thing you could do with exoplanets is announce false positives," he said.

Latham said "the flow into the faucet" during the first 45 days of data collection amounted to about 200 targets of interest. But neither Borucki nor Latham would drop any hints about the nature of the findings that were being turned up.

Scientists are taking so much care with their data in part because the stakes are so high. Kepler and COROT could answer a question that has dogged humans for centuries: Are planets like Earth so rare that we're essentially marooned in the universe, or are they so common that life could find many other homes beyond the solar system?

"A 'dry hole' would be a very, very interesting result," Borucki said. "You will have dramatically affected mankind's future. ... There'd be no 'Star Trek' in that case, no place to go."

But Borucki and his colleagues expect to find many Earths — and that could help focus future observation and exploration for decades or even centuries to come.

"The biggest impact has to be to support the idea that we aren't alone, in the sense that there are other planets out there rather like the Earth," Latham said. "We're confident that they're out there, but we don't have any yet." Follow UFO Report on Twitter @

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