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Mar 2, 2016

Astronomers estimate 100 billion habitable Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, 50 sextillion in the universe

Posted by in categories: alien life, mathematics

Astronomers at the University of Auckland claim that there are actually around 100 billion habitable, Earth-like planets in the Milky Way — significantly more than the previous estimate of around 17 billion. There are roughly 500 billion galaxies in the universe, meaning there is somewhere in the region of 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (5×10 22 ) habitable planets. I’ll leave you to do the math on whether one of those 50 sextillion planets has the right conditions for nurturing alien life or not.

The previous figure of 17 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way came from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in January, which analyzed data from the Kepler space observatory. Kepler essentially measures the dimming (apparent magnitude) of stars as planets transit in front of them — the more a star dims, the larger the planet. Through repeated observations we can work out the planet’s orbital period, from which we can usually derive the orbital distance and surface temperature. According to Phil Yock from the University of Auckland, Kepler’s technique generally finds “Earth-sized planets that are quite close to parent stars,” and are therefore “generally hotter than Earth [and not habitable].”

The University of Auckland’s technique, called gravitational microlensing, instead measures the number of Earth-size planets that orbit at twice the Sun-Earth distance. This results in a list of planets that are generally cooler than Earth — but by interpolating between this new list, and Kepler’s list, the Kiwi astronomers hope to generate a more accurate list of habitable, Earth-like planets. “We anticipate a number in the order of 100 billion,” says Yock.

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