NASA announced yesterday that its Kepler spacecraft has discovered "the first near-Earth-size planet in the 'habitable zone' around a sun-like star." NASA believes there may be up to another 11 other "new small habitable zone candidate planets," marking "another milestone in the journey to finding another 'Earth,'" according to the agency's press release.
— NASA Kepler (@NASAKepler) July 23, 2015
The $600 million Kepler mission started in 2009 to survey the Milky Way for habitable planets. To date, it has discovered more than 1,000 planets. "Twelve of the new planet candidates have diameters between one to two times that of Earth, and orbit in their star's habitable zone. Of these, nine orbit stars that are similar to our sun in size and temperature," says NASA.
A "habitable zone" is "the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet," or put in simpler terms, it's the Goldilocks zone—not too hot and not too cold, so water neither freezes nor boils. "Though NASA can't say for sure whether the planet is rocky like ours or has water and air, it's the closest match yet found," reports CNN.
Scientists say the planet has a "good chance of being rocky" and a visitor would experience gravity twice that of Earth's. "On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0."
The new planet, Kepler-452b, is an "older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment," NASA scientist Jon Jenkins said. The planet, which is 60 percent larger than Earth, is located 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. "Because it's spent so long orbiting in this zone—6 billion years—it's had plenty of time to brew life," Jenkins said. "That's substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet."
And there could be more planets similar to this one out there. "In addition to confirming Kepler-452b, the Kepler team has increased the number of new exoplanet candidates by 521 from their analysis of observations conducted from May 2009 to May 2013, raising the number of planet candidates detected by the Kepler mission to 4,696," says NASA. An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than our Sun, a stellar remnant or a brown dwarf. Nearly 2,000 exoplanets have been discovered to date. If just half of all the potential 4,700 exoplanet candidates turn out to be planets, that would more than double the number of known exoplanets in the universe.
Check out this video from NASA explaining the newly discovered planet:
Newly discovered Kepler-452b is first near-Earth-size planet in 'habitable zone' around a sun-like star. @NASAKepler https://t.co/agH7IrILBn
— NASA (@NASA) July 24, 2015
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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