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First Earth-Size Planet That Could Support Life

For the first time, scientists have discovered an Earth-size alien planet in the habitable zone of its host star, an “Earth cousin” that just might have liquid water and the right conditions for life.

Image 1: This artist illustration shows what it might be like to stand on the surface of the planet Kepler-186f, the first-ever Earth-size planet to be found in the habitable zone of its star. Credit: Danielle Futselaa

Image 2: This artist illustration shows the planet Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size alien planet discovered in the habitable zone of its star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

The newfound planet, called Kepler-186f, was first spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and circles a dim red dwarf star about 490 light-years from Earth. While the host star is dimmer than Earth’s sun and the planet is slightly bigger than Earth, the positioning of the alien world coupled with its size suggests that Kepler-186f could have water on its surface, scientists say. You can learn more about the amazing alien planet find in a video produced by

"One of the things we’ve been looking for is maybe an Earth twin, which is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star," Tom Barclay, Kepler scientist and co-author of the new exoplanet research, told "This [Kepler-186f] is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a cooler star. So, while it’s not an Earth twin, it is perhaps an Earth cousin. It has similar characteristics, but a different parent."

Scientists think that Kepler-186f — the outermost of five planets found to be orbiting the star Kepler-186 — orbits at a distance of 32.5 million miles (52.4 million kilometers), theoretically within the habitable zone for a red dwarf.

Earth orbits the sun from an average distance of about 93 million miles (150 million km), but the sun is larger and brighter than the Kepler-186 star, meaning that the sun’s habitable zone begins farther out from the star by comparison to Kepler-186.

"This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star," Elisa Quintana, of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center and the lead author of a new study detailing the findings, said in a statement.

Other planets of various sizes have been found in the habitable zones of their stars. However, Kepler-186f is the first alien planet this close to Earth in size found orbiting in that potentially life-supporting area of an extrasolar system, according to exoplanet scientists.


44 years ago today, James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert made a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, bringing an end to Apollo 13’s perilous journey. Considered a “successful failure” in that the intended objective of landing on the moon never transpired, the crew of Apollo 13 worked with NASA on improvisational procedures to return home after an oxygen tank exploded two days following liftoff.

At a distance of approximately 200,000 miles from Earth, Jack Swigert was advised by Mission Control to stir the cryotanks associated to the onboard oxygen supply; a seemingly routine procedure. Two minutes later, the crew of Apollo 13 reported a “loud bang,” later determined to be the number-2 oxygen tank exploding. This explosion caused extreme damage to the Command Module’s power and oxygen capabilities, forcing the crew to power it down completely, and utilize the LEM — originally intended to land on the lunar surface, as a lifeboat. 

Engineered to transport Haise and Lovell to the Fra Mauro Highlands, the LEM now had to be retrofitted for it to be habitable for three men over four days. Due to a hardware flaw, Mission Control was imposed the task of developing a working procedure to quickly lower the carbon monoxide levels if the crew were to have any chance of survival. In what still stands as one of the finest displays of improvisation in NASA’s history, Lovell, Haise and Swigert were able to “fit a square peg into a round hole” by fabricating a device for the oxygen canisters from the Command Module to be used on the LEM. 

Now being able to breathe, Apollo 13 faced another huge problem; to develop a power-up procedure from scratch after the Command Module was completely powered off. With only a limited allocation of power due to the Command Module shutdown, the flight controllers identified alternative methods for the crew of Apollo 13 to begin re-entry.

After a longer-than-usual radio blackout, the crew of Apollo 13 made a safe splashdown southeast of the Samoan Islands on April 17th, 1970. Lasting nearly six days, the entire world stood united as they awaited the fate of Apollo 13, and their journey has been inspirational for generations, resulting in Ron Howard’s exhilarant motion picture released in 1995.

Fun fact: The phrase “Failure Is Not An Option” was not coined by Gene Kranz, as is widely believed.




Dance of Saturn’s Auroras

Ultraviolet and infrared images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope show active and quiet auroras at Saturn’s north and south poles.

Saturn’s auroras glow when energetic electrons dive into the planet’s atmosphere and collide with hydrogen molecules. Sometimes a blast of fast solar wind, composed of mostly electrons and protons, creates an active aurora at Saturn, as occurred on April 5 and May 20, 2013.

The first set of images, as seen in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum by Hubble, shows an active aurora dancing around Saturn’s north pole on April 5. The movie then shows a relatively quiet time between April 19 to 22 and between May 18 and 19. The aurora flares up again in Hubble images from May 20. This version, shown in false-color, has been processed to show the auroras more clearly.

A second set of ultraviolet images shows a closer view of an active north polar aurora in white. This set comes from Cassini ultraviolet imaging spectrograph observations on May 20 and 21.

The last set of images, in the infrared, shows a quiet southern aurora (in green) in observations from Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer on May 17. Saturn’s inner heat glows in red, with dark areas showing where high clouds block the heat.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College and NASA/ESA/University of Leicester and NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Lancaster University

Source: JPL.




Kepler’s Universe: More planets in our galaxy than stars

Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way contains up to 400 billion stars and thanks to the Kepler mission, we can now estimate that every star in our galaxy has on average 1.6 planets in orbit around it.

This new video from our friends Tony Darnell and Scott Lewis focuses on the discoveries that the Kepler Space Telescope has made, which has opened up a whole new universe and a new way of looking at stars as potential homes for other planets. Only about 20 years ago, we didn’t know if there were any other planets around any other stars besides our own. But now we know we live in a galaxy that contains more planets than stars.

If you extrapolate that number to the rest of the Universe, it’s mind-blowing. According to astronomers, there are probably more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, stretching out into a region of space 13.8 billion light-years away from us in all directions.

And so, if you multiply the number of stars in our galaxy by the number of galaxies in the Universe, you get approximately 1024 stars. That’s a 1 followed by twenty-four zeros, or a septillion stars.

However, it’s been calculated that the observable Universe is a bubble of space 47 billion years in all directions… or it could be much bigger, possibly infinite. It’s just that we can’t detect those stars because they’re outside the observable Universe.

Think about this.




Exoplanets Visualized

Exploring our neighborhood with NASA, CERC, blprnt, Open Exoplanet Catalogue, The Kepler Orrery, xkcd, codementum, TULP, Exoplanet Data Explorer, exovis, and the Exoplanet App.

Join the search!

Incredible, beautiful visual resources for exploring the ever-growing family of exoplanets.

In addition to the great tools linked above, I’d recommend The New York Times' interactive feature on the Kepler Tally of exoplanets, which I’ve featured before.

Want more exoplanet goodness? I did a two-part video series for It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube

Searching for Other Earths

Searching for Other Intelligent Life

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