New Earth-sized planet found in habitable sweet-spot orbit around a distant star

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Researchers have discovered a new Earth-sized planet orbiting a star outside our solar system. The planet, called Kepler-1649c, is only around 1.06 times larger than Earth, making it very similar to our own planet in terms of physical dimensions. It’s also quite close to its star, orbiting at a distance that means it gets around 75% of the light we do from the Sun.

The planet’s star is a red dwarf, which is more prone to the kind of flares that might make it difficult for life to have evolved on its rocky satellite’s surface, unlike here in our own neighborhood. It orbits so closely to its star, too, that one year is just 19.5 of our days — but the star puts out significantly less heat than the Sun, so that’s actually right in the proper region to allow for the presence of liquid water.

Kepler-1649c was found by scientists digging into existing observations gathered by the Kepler space telescope before its retirement from operational status in 2018. An algorithm that was developed to go through the troves of data collected by the telescope and identify potential planets for further study failed to properly ID this one, but researchers noticed it when reviewing the information.

There’s still a lot that remains to be discovered about the exoplanet, like what its atmosphere is like. There could be any number of other problems with Kepler-1649c relative to its ability to support life, as well, including errors in the data used to determine that it is Earth-like and in the correct habitable zone around its star. But this represents one of the best-ever potential extra-solar planets found in terms of its potential of supporting life, thanks to the combo of its size and the temperate orbital band it occupies.

Identified exoplanets with Earth-like characteristics provide scientists with good candidates for future study, including targeting via Earth-based and in-space observation instruments. It’ll probably be a long time before we can definitively say anything about whether or not they might support actual life, but even finding exoplanets with the potential is an exciting development.