by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor
Date: 09 January 2013 Time: 07:30 AM ET
This artist's illustration represents the variety of planets
being detected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Scientists now say that one
in six stars hosts an Earth-size planet.
CREDIT: C. Pulliam & D. Aguilar (CfA)
Batalha is a co-investigator for NASA's Kepler telescope, a planet-hunting mission that has uncovered 2,740 potential alien worlds in just the few years since its 2009 launch. Though Kepler has found some Earth-size planets, and others in the habitable zones around their stars that could allow them to harbor liquid water, none of them are true Earth twins. But that's likely soon to come.
"That is certainly the big picture goal, that is what NASA is aiming to do, to find the next Earth and ultimately to find other life in the galaxy," Batalha said here at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
However, Kepler itself isn't ideally equipped to find Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars at roughly the same distance of our world from the sun.
"We wouldn't probably recognize it if we did see it," Batalha said. "We wouldn’t know about the atmosphere, we might not even know about the mass. The question Kepler is designed to answer is, 'what is the fraction of stars in our galaxy that harbor potentially habitable Earth-size planets?' It's a statistical mission."
Nonetheless, Kepler is laying the vital groundwork for future missions to follow-up on to identify not just one, but potentially many planets that strongly resemble our own home in the cosmos, she said.
So far, Kepler has found 351 roughly Earth-size planet candidates, plus 58 possible planets in their stars' habitable zones. Some of these are what are called "Super Earths," just a tad larger than our own planet. And one exciting Kepler find, called KOI 172.02, is a Super Earth in the habitable zone orbiting a star very much like our sun.
Furthermore, studies suggest small planets like Earth are probably common in the universe. One estimate suggests the tally could be 17 billion Earth-size planets in our own galaxy alone. [17 Billion Earths Fill Our Milky Way Galaxy (Infographic)]
"Nature likes to make small things efficiently," Batalha said. "It plays out for stars, it plays out in the solar system. Why not for exoplanets?"
All of these signs point toward a discovery of an Earth-twin beyond the solar system in the near future — likely sometime this year, experts say.