Conceptual illustration compares Earth to Kepler-452b, a planet that orbits a star about the same temperature as our sun (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
In a universe teeming with countless solar systems, how common are Earth-like exoplanents that circle stars other than our sun and are capable of sustaining life?
Join Sam Quinn, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on a search for answers among the exoplanets. An expert in planetary formation and detecting and characterizing exoplanets, Quinn explains that up until three decades ago, we were still largely in the dark about what existed outside our solar system. The development of observatories such as NASA’s Kepler space telescope opened the way to characterizing other planets and revolutionized our understanding of how they form and evolve.
Scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets and their diversity is astounding, including planets of scorched orbits of a few days and massive bodies with orbits lasting hundreds of thousands of years; planets as dense as iron or as light as Styrofoam; or planets in orbit around young, old, and even dead stars. The rich data collected from this complex population bring us closer to answering the question that is never far from our minds when we look up at the stars.
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