An artist's rendition of a habitable planet called Proxima b. An artist's rendition of a habitable planet called Proxima b. An artist's rendition of a habitable planet called Proxima b. (Photo: NASA)

Who needs earth? Scientists discover 20 new planets that could host life

Our universe just got a whole lot more crowded.

Since the dawn of mankind, the question of "Are we alone?" has always hovered on the tail-end of our consciousness.

That philosophical quandary became a lot more practical this week when an international team of scientists announced that they had discovered 20 habitable planets hiding in plain view. One of them – called KOI-7923.01 – is remarkably similar to Earth in that it is 97% the same size as our planet and has a yearly cycle of the sun that is only about a month longer than ours.

The new planets were discovered as part of NASA's Kepler mission, named after Johannes Kepler, a 17th century German astronomer and an integral figure in the scientific revolution. The modern-day team includes scientists from the U.S., France and Israel among other countries.

So should we be booking our ticket to these new worlds? Well, don't fuel up your rocket just yet. The scientists behind this week's discovery say more study is needed from ground-based observatories – like the world's largest in Green Bank, W.Va.

In the past few years, scientists have been discovering new planets at an impressive clip. In 2015, NASA announced a major discovery of an Earth-like planet. This summer, scientists found a planet that has a stratosphere similar to that of our own planet. It's the strongest evidence to date that planets outside our solar system – called exoplanets – could have characteristics similar to Earth's. In addition, a theory of Einstein's helped scientists find a massive world where aliens are potentially hiding. With a new "Star Wars" movie coming out this year, it caught some by surprise that, as if on cue, astronomers found a planet similar to the ice cold Hoth planet in the film franchise.

"We now know that there are probably more planets in our galaxy than there are stars," said Natalie Batalha, a NASA scientist working on the Kepler mission.

Dr. Aviv Ofir studies in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He was part of the team that discovered an Earth-like planet in the summer of 2016. "When I was growing up, there were no known planets outside the solar system," he told From The Grapevine. "This is a whole new field. The first one was discovered just in 1995. When I was starting my astronomy career, there were only a handful known and we knew them by name – each and every one of them. There were so few of them."

Aviv Ofir was one of more than two dozen scientists who authored a new study. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And we hope that we have brought this evidence," said Dr. Aviv Ofir. (Photo: Courtesy)

But with new technology, that's now changing. "Recently, just in the past few years, the field is just exploding. It's great," Ofir added. "New planets are being discovered on a weekly if not daily basis."

Beyond the mere discovery of such planets, scientists are hoping that they one day could provide new homes for humanity. Avi Loeb, an Israeli astronomer and the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, is spearheading a project to do just that.

Along with many scientists, Loeb knows that humans' time on Earth is finite. The sun will eventually boil the oceans to the point where we'll have to find a new home. Or there could be a catastrophic asteroid. It won't happen tomorrow, or even in the next century. But he knows it will happen eventually. Now that habitable planets have been discovered, Loeb and other scientists are now seeking how to get us there. "We just need to think about the big picture and, you know, have a plan B," he told us.

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