Science is a fickle mistress. One day she takes Pluto away from us, the next she announces the discovery of a new, tantalizingly Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star.
A team of Bay Area-based scientists decoding data taken by NASA's Kepler spacecraft announced today that they had found evidence for the exoplanet most closely resembling the Earth ever found. The planet, which orbits a red dwarf star known as Kepler-186, and is located about 500 light years away from Earth. Most importantly, the planet is the first to be discovered that is located within is known as the "habitable zone" and roughly the same size as our own.
According to Nature, the newly-discovered planet is the most similar to Earth that has ever been found. Previous planets that have been discovered with orbits inside their star's habitable zones—the area in which planets receive enough solar radiation to support liquid water but not so much as to boil it off—and planets have been found roughly the size of the Earth. But, except for this one, scientists haven't found both at the same time.
The team was led by researchers in the Bay Area, centered at the SETI Institute at Mountain View and the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffet Field. It was led by Elisa V. Quintana, 40, a SETI post-doc physicist and included staffers from a dozen other research centers. They were able to spot the planet by measuring the amount that the light from its star dimmed as it passed in front.
As of right now, the planet is simply called Kepler-186f, which, let's face it, is a pretty weak name. We're voting for Miranda.