by Staff Writers
Pasadena CA (SPX) Jun 15, 2009
Angelle Tanner, a post-doctoral scholar at JPL and Caltech, studies planets in distant solar systems, called extrasolar planets. The golden prize in this field is to find a planet similar to Earth - the only planet we know that harbors life. While more than 350 extrasolar planets have been detected, most are gas planets, with no solid surface.
Many are located in orbits closer to their parent star than Mercury is to the sun. In other words, not very similar to Earth.
Here's Tanner's short list of what she and her colleagues would love to find in another planet - the elements that might enable life on another world. With the powerful tools scientists have now and with new technology and missions coming soon, the odds are going up for finding an Earth-like planet, if one is out there.
Tanner's top five "holy grails" of extrasolar planet research are hoped-for findings that she predicts will happen within the next 15 years.
1. First planet that weighs the same as Earth
There is no reason these planets could not host an atmosphere or even life as we know it. The discovery of a true Earth clone - Earth-like in size and make-up - could happen within a year or two. NASA's recently launched Kepler mission has the ability to find planets as small as Earth.
2. First Earth-sized planet in the 'habitable zone'
Finding an Earth-sized planet is this geographically desirable location is the next big step in extrasolar research. One super-earth has already been detected near to its parent star's habitable zone and it is only a matter of time - using existing technologies -- before a planet is found in this friendly environment. Ground-based telescopes and NASA's Kepler mission are searching stars within a few hundred light years of Earth right now.
3. First atmosphere on a rocky planet
4. First hint of habitability and life
5. The unexpected
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
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