Distant Planets Found, Possibly Right for Life

An international team of astronomers has found two planets whose size and position suggest they may support life.

The planets orbit a star about 2,000 light-years away named Kepler-62 at the right distance for liquid water and, thus, life to exist, according to research published online yesterday by the journal Science.

Compared with Earth, the planets, named Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, are larger and receive 0.41 and 1.2 times the amount of solar radiation. The planet hunters, led by William Borucki of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, say they won’t know what the heavenly bodies look like or if they are in fact habitable until they can further analyze their atmospheres.

“We have found two planets in the habitable zone of another star, and they are the best planets found to date” that may support life, said Borucki, a space scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

One of the planets, Kepler-62f, may be a rocky celestial body with polar ice caps, Borucki said. The other, Kepler-62e, is believed to be warm and have lightning. While it’s too soon to know for sure, it may even be a water world, the first of its kind discovered, Borucki said.

“Kepler-62e probably has a very cloudy sky and is warm and humid all the way to the polar regions,” Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and a co-author on the paper, said in a statement. “Kepler-62f would be cooler, but still potentially life-friendly.”