Dimitar Sasselov: How we found hundreds of potential Earth-like planets. Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov and his colleagues search for Earth-like planets that may, someday, help us answer centuries-old questions about the origin and existence of biological life elsewhere (and on Earth). Preliminary results show that they have found 706 “candidates” — some of which further research may prove to be planets with Earth-like geochemical characteristics. Dimitar Sasselov works on uniting the physical and life sciences in the hunt for answers to the question of how life began. Dimitar Sasselov is an astronomer who explores the interaction between light and matter. He studies, among other things, extrasolar planets, and he’s a co-investigator on NASA’s Kepler mission, which is monitoring 100,000 stars in a three-year hunt for exoplanets — including Jupiter-sized giants. Sasselov watches for exoplanets by looking for transits, the act of a planet passing across the face of its star, dimming its light and changing its chemical signature. This simple, elegant
way of searching has led to a bounty of newly discovered planets. Sasselov is the director of Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative, a new interdisciplinary institute that joins biologists, chemists and astronomers in searching for the starting points of life on Earth (and possibly elsewhere). What is an astronomer doing looking for the origins of life, a question more often asked by biologists? Sasselov suggests that planetary conditions are the seedbed of life; knowing the composition and conditions of a planet will give us clues, perhaps, as to how life might form there. And as we discover new planets that might host life, having a working definition of life will help us screen for possible new forms of it. Other institute members such as biologist George Church and chemist George Whitesides work on the question from other angles, looking for (and building) alternative biologies that might fit conditions elsewhere in the universe. “One of the central goals of the Harvard initiative is to understand the different ways that life might form, according to Dimitar Sasselov. … ‘There is no reason to think that biology would be the same from planet to planet, but physics and chemistry should be the same,’ Sasselov said”. ~ Kepler in Brief … NASA’s first mission capable of finding Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars. Importance of Planet Detection; The centuries-old quest for other worlds like our Earth has been rejuvenated by the intense excitement and popular interest surrounding the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. There is now clear evidence for substantial numbers of three types of exoplanets; gas giants, hot-super-Earths in short period orbits, and ice giants. The following websites are tracking the day-by-day increase in new discoveries and are providing information on the characteristics of the planets as well as those of the stars
they orbit: Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, New Worlds Atlas,, and Current Planet Count Widget. The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where liquid water and possibly life might exist. The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. Results from this mission will allow us to place our solar system within the continuum of planetary systems in the Galaxy. Kepler Mission Scientific Objective: The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to: 1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars; 2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets; 3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems; 4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets; 5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and 6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems. The Kepler Mission also supports the objectives of future NASA Origins theme missions Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) and Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), * By identifying the common stellar characteristics of host stars for future planet searches, * By defining the volume of space needed for the search and * By allowing SIM to target systems already known to have terrestrial planets. Sources: ted.com & nasa.gov
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