NASA’s Kepler Telescope just discovered 219 new exoplanets, 10 of which resemble Earth in their size and distance from their stars. These 10 planets have the best chance of having liquid water on their surface, which is an essential trait for harboring life or for hosting human colonies.

The Kepler Telescope orbits the sun, searching for exoplanets (any planet outside of our solar system). Mario Perez, a program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said “The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs—planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth. Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth.”

The data has big implications in two areas. These Earth-like planets are the most likely to have life on them, and they are the most likely to be suitable for human colonization. Both of these areas are of great interest to astronomers and much of the general public.

Stephen Hawking, whom many regard as the smartest guy on this planet, famously said, “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” In light of the dangers of nuclear war, climate change, and other potentially disastrous events, the physicist has urged the world to colonize other planets to ensure humanity’s survival.

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Of course, to colonize other worlds, we first need to find suitable habitats. That has long been a difficult prospect, but the Kepler telescope is making it easier.

By identifying planets that resemble Earth’s size and orbit, astronomers can pinpoint where we are most likely to prosper. Small, rocky planets are more habitable than the more commonly found giant gaseous planets.

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Having a similar orbit to Earth ensures that planets are in the so-called Goldilocks zone. This is the range of distances from a star where a planet is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. Scientists note this as an essential prerequisite for colonizing a planet.

While many are excited at the prospect of colonizing new planets, other scientists are more excited about finding existing life on one. The same qualities that make a planet suitable for colonization make it possible for life to exist.

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Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist for SETI Institute, said, “This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions—how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?”

Thompson is careful not to make any grand pronouncements about the possibility of life on these planets. Still, there is an obvious connection between the abundance of habitable planets in the universe and the odds of there being life elsewhere in the universe.

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The number of exoplanet discoveries has risen sharply in the last decade (thanks in large part to Kepler, launched in 2009).  No one can say for sure if life exists on any of these planets or if humanity will survive long enough to colonize them. For now, their discovery is simply an exciting stepping stone in our quest to better understand the universe.

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