NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has been a huge boon for scientists interested in studying exoplanets, or planets in solar systems other than our own. Recently a team of researchers discovered another planet, called Kepler-453b, which exists within its stars’ habitable zone, the so-called Goldilocks Zone.
Kepler-453b is about 6.2 times the size of Earth, so we’re pretty sure it’s a gas giant and so unable to support life, but it could have moons capable of supporting life. The planet orbits two stars instead of one, making it the tenth such planet discovered in the six years Kepler has been searching for exoplanets.
Those two stars are about 94% and 20% the size of our own sun, and Kepler-453b orbits them in an erratic manner that takes about 240 days. In fact, its orbit is so complicated that it’s very hard to notice from here. If we had been looking in this area earlier, or later than we did, we wouldn’t have noticed it. We’d have to wait till 2066 in order to notice it again, so we got pretty lucky this time around.
It’s hard to find exoplanets in general, because we can’t just see them through telescopes. We instead have to detect them based on whether or not they block light from the stars that they orbit. In the case of Kepler-453b, it blocked about 0.5% of the light coming from that system, which is how we calculated how big it is and all that other data.
What’s fascinating is that, despite how hard it is to actually find planets, since 1996 researchers at San Francisco State University have discovered more than 500 planets, and they certainly aren’t the only ones looking. The last few decades of astronomy have made it quite apparent that there are a lot more planets out there than we had expected. And there are a lot more of them in their star’s Goldilocks Zones or orbiting binary stars than we had imagined, which is very exciting indeed.