Update: On April 25, 2012, the Planetary Habitability Lab published new Earth Similarity Indices based on newly received information. 17 Kepler planet candidates dropped off the habitable list. Sadly this includes KOI-494.01 as well as three of the other previously top-five habitable planet candidates.
Yesterday, NASA’s Kepler mission team publicly released its second set of data. The University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Lab quickly pulled in the data and analyzed it. Within it is a candidate planet, still yet to be fully confirmed, that has a 99% similarity with Earth. This planet candidate, associated with a previously unremarkable red star in the constellation Cygnus, is provisionally known as KOI-494.01.
About the Candidate
If this is a planet, and previously released data indicate this probably, then what are its properties? KOI-494.01 has a mass 15% than Earth with a radius 5% more than Earth. That gives a surface gravity only 5% more than Earth. You would weigh a little more on KOI-494.01, but not much more. More importantly, the new data gives a mean surface temperature for KOI-494.01 that’s only 2 °F (1 °C) cooler than Earth. That’s very similar to Earth and could be quite comfortable for human life.
There are two catches regarding KOI-494.01. The first and most important is that this planet candidate has not yet been confirmed. Hopefully a discovery confirmation paper is in the works right now. Should this planet candidate be confirmed, and indications are positive, it should receive a “Kepler” designation.
The second catch regarding KOI-494.01 is the distance of the KOI-494 system. KOI-494 is approximately 1250 light-years from Earth. Even sustaining acceleration at Earth-surface-normal acceleration (“1 g”) and taking advantage of the time dilation predicted by Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory, a traveler would age almost 14 years enroute to KOI-494. For observers remaining behind on Earth about one and a quarter millenia would pass during this trip (that’s approximately the time from the founding of Islam until now.) An ideal photon rocket would require an initial-to-final mass ratio around 1,660,000 to propel the traveler on this journey. Needless to say, without a major breakthrough getting to KOI-494.01 will be quite a challenge. Nevertheless the Kepler mission may have found a second Earth, and where there’s a second there may be more.
As the first order of business, I recommend that we support and encourage efforts to confirm or disprove KOI-494.01. This is important to get right, so the appropriate researchers need to be given the necessary resources and the necessary time to do this work.
Assuming KOI-494.01 is confirmed, we should next consider additional research to confirm its properties and learn more about it. Our best guess is that this planet candidate is very similar to Earth, but we should work to increase our confidence.
Finally, as we can we as a society should increase investments in basic and applied research. Relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, planetology, geophysics, biology, and materials science should all receive attention; however, broad investments should also be made because advances in one field may unexpectedly trigger advances in apparently unrelated fields. Perhaps with sufficient investment we’ll find a way to reach KOI-494.01.
Planet candidate KOI-494.01 is not only a possible planet that can support life, but it’s also very possibly very similar to Earth. It’s quite far away, and not particularly accessible, but perhaps with sufficient research investment we can find a way to get there.
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