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article imagePossibly habitable planet spotted 500 light-years away

By Nathan Salant     Apr 19, 2014 in Science
Mountain View - An earth-size planet orbiting in its sun's habitable zone has been spotted for the first time, U.S. space scientists announced Thursday.
The planet, known as Kepler-186f because it was spotted by the Kepler Space Telescope, is about 500 light-years away from our sun.
While the Kepler-186 star and its six planets are too far away to contact, the discovery appears to confirm scientists' long-held expectation that solar systems like our Milky Way are common and that other Earth-like planets exist elsewhere in the universe.
"Kepler-168f is significant because it is the first exoplanet that is the same temperature and is (almost) the same size as Earth," astronomer David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics of Cambridge, Mass., told the Reuters news service.
"The impact is to prove that 'yes, such planets really do exist,'" Charbonneau said.
Kepler-186 in the constellation Cygnus is smaller and redder than our sun, and only provides about one-third the radiation to the planet that earth gets from its sun, Reuters said.
That means that high noon on Kepler-186f would be as bright as earth gets around an hour before sunset, astronomer Thomas Barclay of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., told Reuters.
But the planet, formally called an exoplanet, is close enough to its sun to have liquid water and far enough away to be warm enough for life as we know it.
This so-called "Goldilocks Zone" -- not too hot, not too cold -- is believed to be essential for life, Reuters said.
But scientists do not know what kind of atmosphere 186-f has or whether if it also has any of the chemicals considered essential for life, Barclay said.
"This planet is in the habitable zone, but that's doesn't mean it is habitable," Barclay said
"Most candidates don't pan out, but things change as we get more measurements," he said.
Scientists have found nearly 1,800 planets beyond the solar system, Reuters said.
"This planet is an Earth cousin, not an Earth twin," said Barclay, who was among a team of scientists who reported the discovery in the journal Science.
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