This week in science: Kepler bags the Holy Grail

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Hypothetical illustration of Kepler 186f

“Lycoris,” a hypothetical illustration of the surface of Kwepler 186f by Karen Wehrstein. Click image for detailed description.

If you haven’t heard yet, the now defunct Kepler planet finder bagged a planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in its star’s habitable zone. Why is this such a big deal? For starters, Kepler 186 is a Class M star, the same kind that make up about three-quarters of our galaxy, meaning there are roughly 75 billion in the Milky Way alone. Statistically, that means a billion or more Earth-sized planets in or near the habitable zone. This particular star is a largish red-dwarf, it is not a flare star and does not exhibit great variability like some of its smaller, redder cousins. Class M dwarfs last a long, long time giving life plenty of opportunity to develop and evolve.

It’s only about 1.1 times the size of Earth! Together, these make it potentially the most Earth-like planet we’ve yet found.

I say potentially because honestly we don’t know all that much about it besides its size and distance from its star (and its year—it takes 130 days to orbit the star once). The next things we’d need to know about it are the mass, what its atmosphere is like, and the surface temperature.

Based on the NASA hypothetical image and a bunch of guesses, Karen and I produced the image above. For a detailed background on what it is, click here.

  • NASA Ustream press conference with multimedia slides on Kepler 186f
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  • The lunar eclipse was spectacular in the southern parts of North America (nice round up of pics here) this week. But there are always those folks anxious to exploit ancient superstitions for a buck:

    The Blood Moon predictions are going to be with us for a while because there will be four of the same lunar eclipses over the next year and a half. And Hagee’s theories have sold a heck of a lot of books on Amazon. But they lack the exciting specificity of the classic end-of-the-world prophecies. Like polar shifts (earth crust moves, triggering volcanoes, floods and eliminating all life-forms) or the Amazing Criswell, who was waiting for a black rainbow to show up and suck off all the oxygen.

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