Nasa recently announced that it has discovered a planet is more similar to Earth than any other previously known. The exoplanet, which has the rather unmemorable name Kepler 452b, has been described as Earth’s ‘bigger, older cousin’. Though some 60% larger than our planet, it is in the ‘habitable zone’ of its star. It experiences similar temperatures, similar lengths of year, and may even have water on its surface.
Scientists across the world have spent their entire careers in pursuit of a definitive answer to the question of whether we are alone in the Universe. Identifying Earth-like planets is a key line of research: since life flourishes in the conditions we have here on Earth, it makes sense to seek out ‘cousin’ planets elsewhere.
However, some argue that this may be too narrow an approach. Biological Natural Scientists and Biologists should investigate ‘extremophiles’. These are organisms that thrive in ‘extreme environments’, such as high pressure and temperature. However, these are of course only extreme from a human perspective. The numerous species of bacteria species found on hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor shows that seeking out a planet with similar surface conditions to our own may not be the only way to find life.
If Kepler 452b were to prove habitable, Physics and Engineering applicants should consider the feasibility of actually getting there – Stephen Hawking himself has proclaimed that humans will one day have to leave Earth. Geographers should think about when this time could come, with humanity facing challenges including climate change and an Increasing population.