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So astronomers discovered a tiny planet around another star. What's the big deal?

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Astronomers have discovered the smallest planet yet outside of our solar system. The tiny planet is about the size of our moon and orbits close to its parent star, so it's inhospitable. Despite its inhospitable nature, it represents a new milestone in astronomy.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Designated Kepler 37b, the tiny moon-sized planet bakes at 700 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's not a candidate for life. It orbits very close to its parent star, so it has no atmosphere or water.

The discovery of, Kepler 37b has far-reaching implications for astronomers. First, it suggests that planets are very common with most stars hosting them. Small rocky planets such as the Earth, are apparently normal.

Second, this discovery has implications in the quest for life beyond Earth. It suggests that many solar systems may have planets orbiting within their habitable zones where liquid water and atmosphere can exist. If so, then the preconditions for life may also be common.

This implies the universe could be teeming with life.

To date, 861 planets have been detected by NASA's Kepler telescope, which finds planets by monitoring the light from stars. As planets orbit their stars, they block some of the light coming from them, much like one might see a light flicker if someone walks in front of it. The Kepler telescope can detect when this happens and if it happens on a regular, predictable basis, it is a sign that a planet is present.

Astronomers can then determine the mass of the planet by studying the light from the star and seeing how that light is changed by the planet's orbit. Even a small planet can cause a tiny, but detectible wobble in the star. The required equipment is very sensitive and sophisticated, but the method works.

Astronomers predict that they will now begin discovering planets that are remarkably similar to Earth. Once they learn how to find such planets, they can zero in on those that could harbor life and monitor them for telltale signs, such as radio signals, and even pollution in their atmospheres.

This means the discovery of the first planet with life could easily happen  within our lifetime as soon as the next generation of space and earth-bound telescopes are deployed.

Read More: What happens to our faith if we find life out there?

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