Pack your bags? NASA just found the 1st Earth-size planet in a habitable zone

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Apr 18, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT (Updated)

The agency keeps busy with quite a few projects, and NASA has had the Kepler Telescope trained at the stars in hopes of finding a second Earth — and they might’ve just found it.

Astronomers have discovered Kepler-186f (catchy, right?), which is in the Kepler-186 system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. So what’s so special about this specific rock? It’s approximately the same size as Earth and falls in the habitable zone orbiting its star -- marking the first time a planet other than our own has hit both marks.

Scientists have previously spotted planets in the habitable zones of other stars, meaning they could have life-sustaining temperatures that could also support liquid water, but they’ve never been of a comparable size to Earth and are typically gaseous. Researchers can’t actually tell the makeup of this new planet, but it’s likely made of rock. As for the atmosphere? That’ll remain a mystery, sadly.

Paul Hertz, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at the agency's headquarters in Washington, noted that the discovery of Kepler-186f is a “significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth,” though it’s worth noting that the planet is more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin. It orbits its star every 130 days and receives as much sun at high noon as Earth does an hour before sunset, putting it on the outskirts of the habitable zone. Translation: It's probably a bit on the cold side.

So, what’s next? According to NASA, they’ll keep looking for more planets that resemble Earth in hopes of finding one that’s an even closer match. The Kepler Space Telescope can measure the brightness of more than 150,000 stars and marks NASA's first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun.

We’ve taken a big step, yes — but there’s still a long way to go until we can load up in a starship and actually have a safe destination.

(Via NASA)

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