May 2011: Science Researchers Predict Discovery of Earth 2.0

Planet_earth_twin_2 The first Earth-like planet orbiting another star will be announced in May next year, if the discovery of extrasolar planets continues at its present rate, say researchers Samuel Arbesman from Harvard Medical School in Boston and Gregory Laughlin at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They point out that astronomers have been discovering extrasolar planets at an increasing rate since 1995. The rate of scientific progress, they point out, is often hard to measure, but in certain circumstances, the data is unambiguous and easy to measure, creating a trend.

The discoveries of exo-palnets now follow a well understood pattern, the first extrasolar planets being necessarily massive, many times the size of Jupiter, and so easier to spot. As techniques have improved with the Kepler Space Telescope, for example, astronomers have found smaller planets, some just a few times more massive than Earth.

"It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth-analog," says John Morse, head of the astrophysics division at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Astronomers to date have found superhot gas giants and snowball-like Neptunes, with the trend  toward the discovery of a planet in the habitable zone. There's no real dispute among astronomers that the discovery of an Earth-like planet is on the cards. 

Arbesman and Laughlin have taken this data and projected it forward to predict when an Earth-like planet is likely to crop up. The results have a heavy-tailed distribution in which there is a 66 per cent probability of finding the other Earth by 2013, a 75 percent probability by 2020 but a 95 percent probability by 2264.

However, they say the median date of discovery is in early May 2011, which for various reasons is the date they emphasis in their paper.

The first data from Kepler space telescope which was launched in March last year specifically to find extrasolar planets was released in June and is currently being analysed. The first set of candidate planets are due to be announced in February next year.

Many astronomers expect the first Kepler data matrix to include a habitable Earth-like planet. But according to Arbesman and Laughlin, they'll have to wait a little longer. "Because," they say, "of the limited time base line of the mission to date, the Kepler planet candidates to published in February 2011 may be too hot to support significant values for H [their habitability metric]."

But the race is heating up: several new techniques have made Earth-bound telescopes almost as sensitive as Kepler and certainly on the verge of finding Earth 2.0.

The idea of Earth 2.0 orbiting another star, reports the MIT Technology Review, could have a major impact on the global psyche and provide the focus for an international effort to characterize this place. And all this to happen in early May 2011, at least according to Arbesman and Laughlin. 

Casey Kazan 

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1009.2212: A Scientometric Prediction of the Discovery of the First Potentially Habitable Planet with a Mass Similar to Earth

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