8.8 Billion Planets could Potentially Support Life, Scientists Say


Peter Crump

Forget about hyper-drive and phasers for moment, and let’s just figure out if there is indeed life—or the potential for it to develop—on other planets for us to explore at all. Thankfully, astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Hawaii have come one step closer to answering this question using NASA data: are we alone in the universe? In our galaxy alone, about 8.8 billion planets could potentially prove otherwise.

According to USnews.com, scientists used data from 42,000 stars that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft observed to estimate the existence of billions of earth like planets within “habitable” or “Goldilocks zones.” These zones are specific areas around a star where climate and temperature on a planet’s surface are optimal to keep water in its liquid state, thereby providing the means to sustain life. Of those 42,000 stars, 603 had planets orbiting them, though only 10 of those planets appeared to be earth-like in size and distance away from a star, but not necessarily similar in composition, according to the Atlantic Wire.

While 10 planets may not seem promising, the observation was only from a sample of 42,000 stars in the Milky Way. There are about 20 billion sun-like stars in our galaxy alone, about one in five stars altogether, and an estimated 8.8 billion planets that could potential support life. That’s not to mention that there are billions of separate galaxies, each with billions of more stars.

“With tens of billions of these water-laden Earth-size planets, surely some of them have all the necessary attributes of life,” Geoffrey Marcy of UCB, one of the lead scientists in the research, told Bloomberg.com. “Just in our…galaxy alone, that’s 8.8 billion throws of the biological dice.”

Despite the immensity of our galaxy, don’t think this doesn’t hit close to home.

“The nearest Sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye,” said Erick Petigura, a graduate student at the UCB involved in the research. According to USnews.com, this is still an astronomical distance away by today’s standards, but minuscule considering the vastness of space.

So what’s the next step for scientists? The Kepler space telescope has just recently been retired, but scientists are now aiming to have successor space telescopes take photographs of individual planets located within these “habitable zones” and to analyze their atmosphere to determine whether or not they can harbor life, according to the Atlantic Wire. But in the meantime, scientists still have a years’ worth of Kepler data to study and analyze. While this discovery certainly sheds new light on the existence of life in the universe, we’re still far from anything concrete.