Since being launched into space in 2009, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has helped us identify over 1,000 exoplanets, along with several thousand other candidate planets — all in the hopes of finding a new planet that is potentially habitable to humans, or perhaps once was or currently is home to extraterrestrial life. Though the telescope ran into problems last month and caused a bit of a scare here on Earth, NASA engineers pulled out all the stops and managed to rescue Kepler from the void and bring it back to full functionality.
The teleconference briefing is short on details, so it’s really anyone’s guess what we might be learning on Tuesday morning. Here are five wild guesses as to what NASA’s announcement is all about.
Although Kepler was launched in the name of scientific discovery for a wide range of purposes, the reason we love it so much is that it’s given us a better chance that we’ve ever had at finding another planet like Earth. NASA doesn’t normally hold press conferences about their scientific findings unless it’s big news (e.g. the ‘liquid water on Mars’ announcement).
The closest thing we have so far to Earth 2.0 is Kepler 452b — about 1.4 to 1.9 times the size of Earth and is billed as our planet’s bigger, older cousin. Yet there are a lot unknowns surrounding what exactly it looks like, whether it has an atmosphere and temperature that’s viable, etc. The new press conference could perhaps shed some new light on Kepler 452b.
Or maybe we’re going to learn about a totally new Earth-like planet that can finally take up the “2.0” mantle.
Not a New Earth, but Something Habitable or Once Was Habitable
But finding Earth 2.0 is a stretch. Much more likely and feasible is that we’ll learn of a new planet that is definitely not like Earth, but still has some characteristics that may point to habitability.
Take Mars for instance: it’s a cold, dry wasteland — and yet there’s still plenty of evidence to suggest the planet had the potential at one point in its history to sustain life, given that it once boasted ancient lakes and oceans across its surface. Furthermore, some scientists think there’s a good chance we might find something currently living on the red planet.
What I mean is, something doesn’t have to be just like our planet for it to be home to alien life. Perhaps the Kepler team stumbled upon something that warrants more study.
Not a Habitable World, but a World We Could Make Habitable
Though the notion of terraforming a planet stretches more into the realm of science fiction, humans will undoubtedly be having more and more discussions about how to make other worlds suited for life as space exploration advances further and further.
Even now, it’s fun to speculate whether we can seed life on the exoplanets we’ve already identified, and which ones would have the best terraforming potential.
It’s key to remember that part of the reason Earth is such a habitable place is because of the life here on the planet. Part of the reason our atmosphere is so good at keeping us warm and comfy is that we’re all breathing out carbon dioxide; we have plants to make oxygen for us; all life participates in the water cycle; and it goes on and on. NASA may have just found a planet that looks like a desolate hell — but maybe they think we can turn into something resembling Earth.
Last fall, the internet went apeshit over a far-out theory that some peculiar astronomical data could be explained as by hypothetical alien megastructures — i.e. giant objects built by aliens for God-knows what. As the months passed, it became increasingly clear that was probably not the case.
And yet, the way Kepler identifies exoplanets is basically the same way we’d stumble upon megastructure objects as well. NASA would be highly unlikely to entertain such a notion unless they had a high degree of confidence they had just found some sort of ultra-high technology built by aliens and launched into space. Not only would such a finding confirm we are not alone in the universe, but it would also demonstrate that intelligent extraterrestrials exist — and that they are much smarter than us.
Something Entirely Else
Yes, this is sort of a cop-out theory since pretty much everything that hasn’t been listed yet falls under this category. But part of what Kepler does these days as part of its extended K2 mission is to also study other stellar phenomena, like supernovas and black holes. Maybe Kepler picked up some images of a star getting sucked into a wormhole or something. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Kepler found out there was a death star 570 light years away vaporizing an innocent planet.