The Kepler orbiting observatory is specifically designed to find Earth-like planets around nearby stars.
Earlier this year, the Kepler team released the mission’s first 136 days of data and it has turned out to be a veritable jackpot. In that time Kepler looked at some 150,000 target stars and found evidence for 1,235 potential exoplanets. That’s quite a haul.
Since then, most of the work on this database has been to identify the characteristics of all these exoplanets. But such a large dataset also allows for statistical analyses too, from which various projections can be made.
Today, Wesley Traub at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, reveals the results of just such a study. Traub has looked only at the stars that are most similar to the Sun, namely those with the classification F, G or K and worked out often various types of planets occur.
The results are straightforward to state. Traub says that mid-size planets are just as likely to be found around faint stars and bright ones. By contrast, far fewer small planets show up around faint stars. That’s almost certainly because small planets are more difficult for Kepler to see.
It’s also easier for Kepler to see planets that are closer to their stars because it looks for the tiny changes in brightness that these transits cause. That’s why almost a third of all Kepler’s detections orbit their star in less than 42 days. For the most part, these planets orbit too closely to be in the habitable zone.
What interests most astronomers is how many exoplanets orbit at a greater distance, inside the habitable zone. Most of these planets are too far away from their stars to have been picked up by Kepler yet. But Traub says his data analysis provides a way to work out how many their ought to be.
That’s because he’s found a power law that describes how the number of stars with a given orbital period. So all he has to do is assume a longer orbital period equivalent to being in the habitable zone to work out how many planets there ought to be at this distance.
Here’s the answer: “About one-third of FGK stars are predicted to have at least one terrestrial, habitable-zone planet,” he says.
So by this measure, there are plenty of other Earths out there.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1109.4682: Terrestrial, Habitable-Zone Exoplanet Frequency from Kepler