Kepler Co-Investigator Spills The Beans: Lots of Earth-like Planets

By Keith Cowing
July 25, 2010
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Kepler Co-Investigator Spills The Beans: Lots of Earth-like Planets

Reader note: “These articles were sparked by a talk that was given by Harvard’s Dimitar Sasselov at TEDGlobal at Oxford this month. It was posted to the TED site last week and picked up by various sites: link. The smoking gun is the slide in the background at about 8:15 in the talk.”

Keith’s note: Here is the slides – plus another. Now I see where the story had is origin – so Fox and the other papers are off the hook – although they did manage to scramble things a bit. I think Sasselov’s use of English is at fault here. Also, my original comments about the Kepler team’s PR skills have been underscored by this fumbled release of stunning news.

How odd that this venue was chosen – one where you have to pay thousands of dollars to get in – in a foreign country – as the place where this announcement is made by Kepler Co-Investigator Dimitar Sasselov. What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements. And then the project’s Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience – offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.

Click on image to enlarge

Earlier post below

Here is what Sasselov said (transcript reflects his less than perfect use of English): “What the new telescope Kepler has been able to tell us in the past few weeks – and lo and behold – we are back to the harmony and to fulfilling the dreams of Copernicus. You can see here [Chart] – small planets dominate the picture. The planets which are marked “like Earth” – definitely more than any of the other planets that we see. Now for the first time we can say that. There is a lot more work we need to do with this. Most of these are candidates and in the next few years – we will confirm them – but the statistical result is loud and clear – and the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there. [Chart] Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in this kind of planet. So the question is what do we do next? Well we can study them now. We know where they are. And we can find those that we call “habitable” meaning that they have similar conditions to what experience here on Earth and where a lot of complex chemistry can happen …”

Keith’s original note: Looks like Fox News, The Australian, and the Daily Mail have jumped the gun again. To read their headlines and their short stories, you’d think that a bunch of Earthlike planets have been confirmed circling other stars with “both land and water” – and that this is how NASA has been characterizing the Kepler results. Alas this is not what NASA has been saying – at least not publicly.

NASA’s Deep Space Camera Locates Host of ‘Earths’, Fox

“Scientists celebrated Sunday after finding more than 700 suspected new planets — including up to 140 similar in size to Earth — in just six weeks of using a powerful new space observatory. Early results from NASA’s Kepler Mission, a small satellite observing deep space, suggested planets like Earth were far more common than previously thought.”

Space probe locates ‘Earth-like’ planets, The Australian

“Buried in the deluge of data sent back by the probe are clear signs that at least five of the 150,000-plus stars it has studied may have two or more planets in orbit around them. Some appear similar in size to Earth. These results emerged from the first six weeks of Kepler’s mission, meaning the probe has had a chance to spot only fast-moving planets with particularly rapid orbits.”

Prospect of life in deep space as Nasa probe finds hundreds of new planets, Daily Mail

“Hundreds of new planets have been discovered by Nasa’s new space probe, sparking new hope of life outside our solar system. Up to 140 of the newly-found planets are rocky and Earth-like containing both land and water, conditions which could allow simple lifeforms to develop.”

Here’s one of the papers I think these websites are referring to: “Five Kepler target stars that show multiple transiting exoplanet candidates” which says: “We present
five planetary candidate systems where the transits of multiple objects can be seen in the first quarter of photometric data (a 33.5-day data segment from May 13 to June 15 UT, 2009) from the Kepler spacecraft. While not confirmed planet discoveries, these systems have passed several important tests that eliminate false-positive signals. If all were ultimately shown to be planets, then these systems would contain four planets with radii smaller than three Earth radii (the smallest being two Earth radii), at least two pairs of planets in or very near a low-order mean-motion resonance (MMR), and one system with at least three distinct transiting planets.”

This paper also seems to be referenced: Characteristics of Kepler Planetary Candidates Based on the First Data Set: The Majority are Found to be Neptune-Size and Smaller which says: “On 15 June 2010 the Kepler Mission released data on all but 400 of the ~156,000 planetary target stars to the public. At the time of this publication, 706 targets from this first data set have viable exoplanet candidates with sizes as small as that of the Earth to larger than that of Jupiter.”

Nowhere can I find anything in either paper – or anything else that the Kepler team has released – that would support this sentence from the Daily Mail: “Up to 140 of the newly-found planets are rocky and Earth-like containing both land and water, conditions which could allow simple lifeforms to develop.”

Unless the Kepler team is off talking to media without NASA PAO present, I have yet to see anything totally confirmed in terms of Earth-sized, and “Earthlike” extrasolar planets. All the Kepler folks have released are “candidates”. According to NASA: “Without the additional information, candidates that are actual planets cannot be distinguished from false alarms, such as binary stars — two stars that orbit each other. The size of the planetary candidates also can be only approximated until the size of the stars they orbit is determined from additional spectroscopic observations made by ground-based telescopes.”

On one hand this is sloppy reporting with one paper feeding off of the fumes of another paper’s imaginary story. Yet on the other hand, this should be a wake up call and a preview of just how people around the world will react if (when) confirmation of extrasolar worlds similar to our own is finally released. I do not get the impression that the Kepler folks or NASA PAO quite has this figured out yet.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.