January 27 2010 : The first Earth-like planet outside the solar system will have been discovered by the end of the year, one of the world’s leading astronomers said yesterday.
Professor Michel Mayor, the scientist in charge of the team who detected the first extrasolar planet in 1995, claimed that the chance of finding a planet that is habitable for humans is now imminent.
The astronomer, of Geneva University, said that recent technological progress that allows the observation of planets outside the solar system now makes the prospect of locating a planet of a similar make-up to Earth extremely likely.
Professor Mayor said: ‘The search for twins of Earth is motivated by the ultimate prospect of finding sites with favourable conditions for the development of life.
‘We’ve entered a new phase in this search.’
He was speaking at a conference at the Royal Society to mark the anniversary of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, known as SETI.
Among those in attendance included representatives from Nasa, the European Space Agency and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
Professor Mayor said that Nasa’s Kepler spacecraft is likely to be the first to locate the ideal planet to sustain human life because it is carrying the largest telescope to ever have been sent beyond the Earth’s orbit.
The telescope, which is in orbit around the Sun, is monitoring more than 100,000 stars every half hour and is focused on a star field in the Orion spiral arm of the Milky Way.
More than 400 extrasolar planets – or exoplanets – that orbit stars similar to the Sun have been discovered in the last 15 years, Professor Mayor told the conference.
But most of these planets are too large to be habitable for human life, due to having active tectonic plates that would make foran unstable environment.
The smallest planet found to date, he said, is approximately 1.7 times the size of Earth.
It is also imperative for the planet to be at a certain distance from its star so that its water would be liquid.
Professor Mayor said: ‘If the planet’s too close, it will be blazing hot and all the water will evaporate and if it’s too far away, it will be ice.’
It is hoped that within about four years Kepler will have located planets of the same size as Earth that are also in the ‘habitable zone’, he added.