With hundreds of planets now detected in orbit around other stars, and more of them displaying possible Earth-like characteristics, scientists say that 2013 will be the year we finally discover another Earth.
In an article posted at Mashable, several astronomers who are leading the way in discovering and cataloging planets outside our solar system agree that we are getting closer and closer to finding one that is roughly the same size as Earth and capable of supporting life as we know it.
Abel Mendez, who's in charge of the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said, "I'm very positive that the first Earth twin will be discovered next year."
He and other observers cite the availability of new instrumentation that is making it easier to detect small planets at greater distances. Ever since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1995, more than 800 worlds have been spotted. But for a long time, the bulk of those discoveries were larger, Jupiter-like planets incapable of hosting life, simply because they were easier to detect due to their size and proximity to their stars.
With technology improving all the time, however, scientists at installations like NASA's Kepler Space Telescope are able to find planets that are both smaller and farther away from their suns—putting them in or close to the so-called "habitable zone" where conditions could come together to sustain life.
Yet a planet with the exact characteristics of Earth—such as the right distance, the right geological makeup and the correct temperature—has eluded Kepler and the powerful telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. But Kepler team member Geoff Marcy proclaimed, "The first planet with a measured size, orbit and incident stellar flux that is suitable for life is likely to be announced in 2013."
At least nine exoplanets have been flagged as potentially capable of sustaining primitive life or even advanced civilizations—it's just that all the information about them has yet to be collated and confirmed.
Two such planets were recently found orbiting two of our closest cosmic neighbors—the Tau Ceti star and the Alpha Centauri sun, which is the nearest to our own system.
With new ships like the SpaceX rocket inching closer to transporting people to Mars, could it just be a matter of time before one of those twin Earths is confirmed and we launch a mission to Alpha Centauri to find out if anyone is home?