Planet hunters say it's just a matter of time before they lasso Earth's twin, which almost surely is hiding somewhere in our star-studded galaxy.
Momentum is building: Just last week, astronomers announced they had discovered three super-Earths — worlds more massive than ours but small enough to most likely be rocky — orbiting a single star. And dozens of other worlds suspected of having masses in that same range were found around other stars.
"Being able to find three Earth-mass planets around a single star really makes the point that not only may many stars have one Earth, but they may very well have a couple of Earths," said Alan Boss, a planet formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C.
Since the early 1990s, when the first planets outside of our solar system were detected orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257, astronomers have identified nearly 300 such worlds.
However, most of them are gas giants called "hot Jupiters" that orbit close to their stars because, simply, they are easier to find.
"So far we've found Jupiters and Saturns, and now our technology is becoming good enough to detect planets smaller, more like the size of Uranus and Neptune, and even smaller," said one of the top planet hunters on this world, Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
Marcy, Boss and other scientists are optimistic that within the next five or so years headlines will be splashed with news of a near twin of Earth in another star system.
"What is amazing to me is that for thousands of years humans have gazed at the stars, wondering if there might be another Earth out there somewhere," Boss told SPACE.com. "Now we know enough to say that Earth-like planets are indeed orbiting many of those stars, unseen perhaps, but there nevertheless."
Seeing tiny planets
Two techniques are now standard for spotting other worlds. Most of the planets noted to date have been discovered using the radial velocity method, in which astronomers look for slight wobbles in a star's motion due to the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet. This favors detection of very massive planets that are very close to their host stars.
With the transit method, astronomers watch for a dimming of light when a planet passes in front of its host star. Though more haphazard, this approach works when telescopes scan the light from hundreds or thousands of stars at once.
Both methods are limited by their ability to block out the overshadowing light of the host star. For instance, the sun is 100 times larger, 300,000 times more massive and up to 10 billion times brighter than Earth.
"Detecting Earth in reflected light is like searching for a firefly six feet from a searchlight that is 2,400 miles distant," writes a panel of astronomers recently in their final report of the Exoplanet Task Force.
With upgrades in spectrometers and digital cameras attached to telescopes, astronomers' eyes have become more sensitive to relatively tiny stellar wobbles (measured by changes in certain wavelengths of light) and dips in starlight from ever smaller planets.
The discovery of super-Earths announced last week reflects this technological leap.
"I think why astronomers are really excited [about the super-Earth discovery] is it just shows that technology has really matured and so they're able to see these very subtle wobbles due to these low-mass planets," said David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. "Those were fairly massive stars. If they were able to get the same precision on a lower-mass star, they would be able to look at even lower-mass planets and so those really would be analogs of the Earth."
The fast track
To eke out even more sensitivity from current technologies, Charbonneau suggests astronomers look for worlds around small stars.
He and other astronomers are in fact probing the universe for transiting planets orbiting M dwarfs, or red dwarfs, which are about 50 percent dimmer than the sun and much less massive. Red dwarfs are also considered the most common star type in the universe.
"I think the real opportunity there is to study low-mass stars, and that's because we're looking for very small planets," Charbonneau said. "The difficulty is the ratio between the planet's mass and the star's mass or the planet's size and the star's size depending on how you want to find it."
The low mass and luminosity means any changes to the star due to an Earth-mass planet are much more likely to be detected.
"A late-M star is about 10 times smaller than the sun," said Penn State's James Kasting, who studies planetary atmospheres and the habitable zones of exoplanets. "So Earth going in front of an M star would give a 1 percent signal. That's like Jupiter going in front of the sun."
Kasting added, "We could conceivably find an Earth-analog planet by this method within the next five or ten years."
Other teams are gearing up to look for Earth-like worlds orbiting massive stars like the sun. NASA's Kepler observatory is scheduled for launch in February 2009, after which the high-powered telescope will monitor about 100,000 stars in the Milky Way looking for periodic dimming of starlight due to a planet's transit in front of the star.
The French COROT mission is already up in space working in a similar fashion.
The ultimate goal of planet-hunting projects is to find Earth twins.
"We are looking for twins of the Earth, analogs that walk and talk and smell like our own Earth," Marcy said during a telephone interview.
He is currently looking for super-Earths using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Such a twin would be rocky, with a similar chemical composition to Earth, and would orbit within the habitable zone of its star.
The habitable zone defines the distance at which a planet must orbit from its star for liquid water to exist on its surface — not too hot like Venus, not too cold like Neptune or Pluto.
Astronomers have found planets orbiting pretty close to the habitable zone, but none so far within it.
"I suspect there are Earth-like planets with lakes and rivers and waterfalls and deep glacial gorges and that are spectacularly beautiful," Marcy said.
Life beyond Earth
Finding a planet in the habitable zone is the first step toward finding alien life.
"When we say it's a habitable world, all we're doing is saying it potentially could hold life," Boss said. "To go beyond that to say, 'Here's a habitable world; is it inhabited?,' then you need to start studying the atmosphere of the planet."
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch in 2013, could do just that.
"There might be a signal in the atmosphere that could be a smoking gun and would suggest that plate tectonics is there," said earth and planetary scientist Diana Valencia of Harvard University.
Her computer models have shown that plate tectonics, the forces that move continents and lift gigantic mountain ranges, are key to life on Earth as we know it, and possibly to life on other worlds.
That's because as the rocky plates that form the planet's outer shell move about, they also recycle carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas keeps our planet's temperature balmy, but not too hot.
The telltale signal would be certain levels of carbon dioxide, suggesting that just as on Earth, this other world relies on plate tectonics to cycle carbon.
But first things first.
"There's no doubt that other Earths exist, simply due to the sheer vast numbers of other stars and galaxies in our universe," Marcy said. "There's a deeper question — how common are Earth-like planets? Are Earth-like planets a dime a dozen, or are they quite rare, quirky precious planets that are one in a thousand or one in a million?"
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