Earth-like planets — and aliens? — may be closer than we thought

Feb. 06, 2013 | 5:00 p.m.
This artist’s conception shows a hypothetical habitable planet with two moons orbiting a red dwarf star. Astronomers have found that 6 percent of all red dwarf stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, which is warm enough for liquid water on the planet’s surface. Since red dwarf stars are so common, then statistically the closest Earth-like planet should be only 13 light-years away. (David A. Aguilar / CFA)

This artist’s conception shows a hypothetical habitable planet with two moons orbiting a red dwarf star. Astronomers have found that 6% of all red dwarf stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, which is warm enough for liquid water on the planet’s surface. Since red dwarf stars are so common, then statistically the closest Earth-like planet should be 13 light-years away. (David A. Aguilar / CFA)

Confirming what “Doctor Who” fans have long suspected, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) have found that Earth-like planets, and possibly alien life, may be right in our celestial backyard.

The closest Earth-like planet could be as little as 13 light-years away, the scientists said in a report released Wednesday.

That’s still a distance of about 76 trillion miles, but in the context of our vast universe, it is practically right next door.

Scientists: Earth-like planet could be just 13 light-years away

The working definition of an Earth-like planet is one that is small, rocky and warm enough for liquid water to exist on its surface. Scientists have pegged these types of planets as a starting place to look for extraterrestrial life forms.

For this report, the scientists analyzed data collected by NASA’s Kepler telescope, which is pointed at 158,000 target stars in a portion of the Milky Way galaxy to see if they support habitable planets. They limited their investigation to just red dwarf stars, which are one-third as large as our sun, one-thousandth as bright and make up 3 out of every 4 stars in our galaxy.

They found that 6% of red dwarf stars have planets that are both the right size and temperature to be Earth-like, and from there they extrapolated that the closest Earth-like world is likely 13 light-years away.

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Of course, a planet roughly the same size and temperature as Earth that orbits a red dwarf would still be very different from Earth. The planet would have to be much closer to its star than we are to the sun in order for it to be warm enough to support liquid water.

And because red dwarf stars live much longer than sun-like stars, the scientists point out that it is also possible that the planets around them are much older than Earth, and could potentially have more evolved life than on our own planet.

Anyone else getting goosebumps?

“You don’t need an Earth clone to have life,” lead author Courtney Dressing said in a statement.

— Deborah Netburn


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24 Responses to Earth-like planets — and aliens? — may be closer than we thought

  1. YourMom says:

    Yawn. Give me a real shot of a planet similar to earth. Any artist can draw something out of their imagination. This article isn't very scientific.

    • IsWide says:

      in other news… when mankind can turn into light …. travel 13 years and then turn back into matter …. I will give a dam … until then I am yawning with your mom …. again.

  2. doug gilmore says:

    In other news, scientists confirm that their current knowledge of earth's landscape and oceanic areas is less then 70% complete at most, therefore our current understanding of that outside our atmosphere let alone our solar system need be taken with grains of salt… course grains.

  3. markgoldes says:

    A relatively inexpensive experiment may open Goldilocks planets to human exploration.

    A spacecraft may soon be possible to build that tests an alternative physics that rejects Special Relativity. It might accelerate toward 20 million times the speed of light.

    CHEAP GREEN at contains the story.

    If you scroll down to the last few pages you can read about Pion fusion and the work of the late Dr. Robert Carroll, a mathematical physicist.

    If he proves correct, a remarkable age of exploration is about to open.

    He delivered his last paper at the AAAS Meeting in San Francisco some years ago. He addressed a Section devoted to non-relativistic physics.

    Carroll was an active member of the Natural Philosophy Alliance which is a world-wide network of scientists who take issue with relativity.

    • Ben Ford says:

      If there is a "God" (not my personal belief…) and nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, then "God" must be an entity of energy capable of exceeding the speed of light , otherwise "God" would be incapable of having any influence in the universe (so why pray?) This, as I see it, is the fundamental disagreement between science and religion…the limits of communication (or travel if you prefer). Therefore, a universe that includes an active creator stipulates the speed of light can be exceeded.

      A universe without a "God" and bound by the limits of the speed of light can only be (essentially) observed. This scenario stipulates an isolation factor which states "look but don't touch"…rather pointless…why have life at all?

      No doubt about it Einstein was a brilliant man, so was Newton, and so too will be whoever takes the next step beyond Einstein and the limits of his theories.

  4. Dave says:

    Perhaps my science is out of date, but I recall being told that red dwarf stars were not too likely candidates because 1) they'd probably be tidal locked and 2) they'd be bombarded by a lot more radiation from solar flares.

    Is my information out of date or mistaught?

    • @astroellie says:

      That's definitely a concern, but there is still a lot astronomers don't know about these issues (and also about how life might develop on other planets!) Tidal locking is a possibility, but not a certainty, and we don't really know what effect that might have on the development of life. The effect of flares from these stars is also a topic being actively pursued. But there are also similar questions to be asked of any planet orbiting any star other than our Sun.

  5. Philip - Los Gatos says:

    What is missing from this article is the fact that a red dwarf star's surface is quite active (solar flares, protuberances, etc…) so a closer planet to the star will be more affected by the solar activity and this may not lead to life as life requires long period of stability to develop and evolve.

  6. David says:

    Like planet Krypton?

  7. Ed from DC says:

    Great. Let's get on our spaceships and go destroy that planet, too.

  8. @PandoranAge says:

    So we Science Fiction writers have been right all along. Mwhahah!

  9. w.rosey says:

    Assuming that the rise of intelligent civilization on distant planets is even a possibility…Let us hope they are more intelligent and civilized than we!

  10. David Charles says:

    Hey, read Carl Sagan's books for the full statistics in favor of life on other worlds. The question of why earth is populated with so many races and diverse animals may finally ( in the future) get answered better than in the movie PROMETHEUS, or similar fiction(s). And as the truth is often stranger than fiction, the real history of our world could be harsher than is easily confronted. This is a harsh universe when you look at the forces at work in it just astronomy wise. There is little to support the theories of benevolent superior aliens. Myriads of UFOs in circulation have proven that aliens are aloof and probably several other adjectives differently oriented than we are. Possibly there is something wrong with our races, our societies, or our world…

  11. Ben Ford says:

    An intelligent design that would create such a inconceivably vast universe and only put us in it is a huge contradiction. Of course their is other life out there…and just because we haven't found it doesn't mean it hasn't found us.

  12. richard says:

    do a search for project serpo.

  13. Pizzle says:


  14. Andrew Wyatt says:

    I new theres aleins out there!

  15. J.Villalta says:

    When do we go!

  16. modestypress says:

    project serpo is project conspiracy theory, aka yawn.

  17. bernie says:

    its ironical that there is still so much to explore for instance under the sea and ZILLIONS of dollars are wasted?/spent trying to figure out elsewhere´s …also, as long as there is famine in the world, any big investment in any endeavor not aimed at humanity's betterment makes its motifs quite questionable (really, how much cures to this and that are owed to space investigation? does it relate to the size of the investment? any justifying benefits are a tiny by product in the never ending race for more power by a rich minority

    • @Fellstorm says:

      Every dollar spent on space is a dollar spent on Earth. Nearly all the technology developed sending us into orbit and to the moon has proven to be both useful and lucrative back home.
      All of the problems inherent in maintaining a colony in non-terrestrial environments have solutions that would drastically improve life on Earth.
      A colony in space or on an alien planet would need extremely efficient resource management, recycling and emission control if it is going to be viable. All that technology can be applied here to reduce our impact on Earth's environment.
      The space program has proven itself to consistently improve life for everyone (not just a rich minority) and will continue to do so as long as there are enlightened people willing to carry on this vital mission.
      For a short list of ways NASA has directly improved our lives, see this article:

  18. jeschoettgen says:

    The problem with the Earth is over population. If we were to feed everyone their caloric need what would happen is more people would breed and we would be where were are now just a few years down the road. The only way to fix the problem is through education and knowledge. What happens in the natural world is balance, too many and food shortages or sickness lowers the numbers. We are out of balance with the Earth through our advancements in Ag, medical, and science. The only thing that is going to see us through is growth in the sciences, all sciences, and that means finding new resources either here or on other planets.

  19. ttocScott says:

    Odds are, there are many, many forms of life out there, and many are going to be more advanced than us (Geez, we just learned to FLY about 100 years ago! We are SO primative, we can't even all get along!). The thing that worries me is, assuming there IS a lot of life out there, it all isn't going to be benevolent; although, it also isn't going to be all evil.

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