How many alien civilizations are out there? A new galactic survey holds a clue.
The Milky Way is full of habitable real estate, with roughly half of all sunlike stars hosting Earth-size worlds that could be friendly to life.
BY NADIA DRAKE National Geographic
Here’s a good sign for alien hunters: More than 300 million worlds with similar conditions to Earth are scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy. A new analysis concludes that roughly half of the galaxy’s sunlike stars host rocky worlds in habitable zones where liquid water could pool or flow over the planets’ surfaces.
“This is the science result we’ve all been waiting for,” says Natalie Batalha, an astronomer with the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on the new study.
Astronomers estimated the number of these planets using data from NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft. For nine years, Kepler stared at the stars and watched for the brief twinkles produced when orbiting planets blot out a portion of their star’s light. By the end of its mission in 2018, Kepler had spotted some 2,800 exoplanets. But Kepler’s primary goal was always to determine how common planets like Earth are. The calculation required help from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, which monitors stars across the galaxy. With Gaia’s observations in hand, scientists were finally able to determine that the Milky Way is populated by hundreds of millions of Earth-size planets orbiting sunlike stars—and that the nearest one is probably within 20 light-years of the solar system.
It took more than half a century for scientists to start pinning down how many planets could feasibly host life. In 1961, astronomers knew of no worlds orbiting stars other than the sun—and although planetary formation theories suggested exoplanets should be common, we had no observational evidence that they existed. But over the past decade, it’s become clear that planets are extremely common, outnumbering stars in the Milky Way. On average, nearly every star is home to at least one orbiting world.
Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets of all sizes and orbits. But scientists’ real quest was for the fraction of planets like Earth: temperate, rocky, and orbiting sunlike stars. Early estimates suggested that perhaps 20 percent of sunlike stars hosted a world that met those criteria. We now know that the number is closer to 50 percent, if not more.
Finding just one example of life beyond Earth would demonstrate that biology is not a cosmic fluke but rather a probable outcome, given the right ingredients. And considering the amount of habitable real estate in the cosmos, many astronomers say that life is basically an inevitability.