Dimitar Sasselov, Co-Investigator, Kepler Science Team, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Two weeks ago I gave a talk at TED Global 2010 which was very well received, but caused confusion. I referred to past results from the NASA Kepler mission. Indeed, Kepler has not discovered Earth-like planets in habitable zones. We have not found Earth-size planets; at this time we have found only planet candidates - 706 of them as of June 15, 2010, based on only 43 days of data with 306 released and discussed in a paper by the Kepler team. Planet candidates are just that: "candidates". A sizable fraction will turn out not to be planets, and we do not know what that fraction is yet. So that was my challenge - Kepler measures planet sizes, while I wanted to talk about geochemistry. In just 18 minutes. So, the expected number of planets, size and Earth-like chemistry got confused, and created a misunderstanding.
The family of our Solar System planets seems simple when sorted by size: half of the planets are large (giants) and half of the planets are small (terrestrial). The giants contain a lot of light gases (hydrogen and helium) in their bulk composition while the terrestrial ones contain mostly heavier elements. Too much hydrogen and helium dilute the surface chemistry, while heavy elements and solid surfaces tend to concentrate it. There is one planet in our Solar System where the chemistry has evolved to biochemistry and to a biosphere. In the search for life beyond Earth, the smaller planets are thus the favorite places to look.
The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-size planets by detecting and measuring their transits. The Kepler team collects additional information as it works to confirm a planet discovery, but one essential physical parameter Kepler provides is SIZE, the planetary radius. However, is "Earth-size" the same as "Earth-like"? And vice versa?
Kepler is capable of finding Earth-size planets in orbits of moderate temperatures. But most people consider the term "Earth-like" to mean that the planet has an atmosphere, liquid water on its surface, and a temperature conducive to life. In other words, "Earth-like" is often used to mean 'habitable'. Therefore, Earth-size and Earth-like are certainly not the same. Take the example of Venus, an Earth-size planet whose surface will melt lead.
The term "Earth-like" planet creates confusion. To some scientists like me, who model planet interiors, the term "Earth-like" is a simple short-hand for a bulk composition like Earth's. It emphasizes the broad difference between gas giants and terrestrial planets, as seen in our Solar System. However, I understand that this is not how it was interpreted by the majority of the media coverage. My definition allows for a whole range of planet sizes to be "Earth-like" planets. Thus, the question - what size planets might be "Earth-like"?, is more interesting. According to my definition, it involves the so-called "super-Earths" - planets larger in size and mass than the Earth, yet smaller than the giant planets. Many super-Earths are expected to have the same properties and potential for life as habitable Earth-size planets.