Alien Planets Revealed

Are we alone—and if not, what might the inhabitants of far-flung worlds look like? Airing April 1, 2015 at 9 pm on PBS Aired April 1, 2015 on PBS

  • Originally aired 01.08.14

Program Description

It's a golden age for planet hunters: NASA's Kepler mission has identified more than 3,500 potential planets orbiting stars beyond our Sun. Some of them, like a planet called Kepler-22b, might even be able to harbor life. How did we come upon this distant planet? Combining startling animation with input from expert astrophysicists and astrobiologists, "Alien Planets Revealed" takes viewers on a journey along with the Kepler telescope. How does the telescope look for planets? How many of these planets are like our Earth? Will any of these planets be suitable for life as we know it? Bringing the creative power of veteran animators together with the latest discoveries in planet-hunting, "Alien Planets Revealed" shows the successes of the Kepler mission, taking us to planets beyond our solar system and providing a glimpse of creatures we might one day encounter.


Alien Planets Revealed

PBS Airdate: January 8, 2014

NARRATOR: Hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and yet, we know of only one that shines on a life-filled planet. Is Earth unique, or are there other solar systems and planets like ours out there? Now, scientists are finding the answer, thanks to this: the Kepler Space Telescope, the most powerful planet hunter ever built. It is making astonishing discoveries...

NATALIE BATALHA (NASA Ames Research Center): The sheer numbers of planets out there is really quite stupendous.

NARRATOR: …from enormous gas giants, to a land where the sun never sets, to worlds that may be entirely covered in water. Kepler is even finding planets like our own.

GEOFF MARCY (University of California, Berkeley): This might be the first Earth analog around a Sun-like star that's ever been found.

NARRATOR: Scientists are beginning to wonder if those planets could be inhabited. And, if so, by what?

ANDREW KNOLL (Harvard University): It's fun to speculate about life, but any life is going to be subject to the laws of chemistry and physics.

LEWIS DARTNELL (University of Leicester): Even on another planet, we can work out how biology is likely to adapt.

NARRATOR: This is the story of how one spectacular spacecraft has brought us closer than ever to answering mankind's ultimate question: are we alone? Alien Planets Revealed, right now, on NOVA.

NASA CONTROL: Twenty-two seconds.

NARRATOR: The most ambitious planet hunter ever built sits on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA CONTROL: T minus 5, 4, 3, 2, engines start, 1, 0.

NARRATOR: Over two decades in the making, it is about to radically alter what we know about our galaxy.

NASA CONTROL: Running out of solids, ready for separation.

NARRATOR: Meet the Kepler Space Telescope. Its mission: to detect alien worlds orbiting distant stars and to discover if any of them could be a suitable home for life as we know it. Project scientist Natalie Batalha has lived with the Kepler mission from the very first moment.

NATALIE BATALHA: To watch it launch was really quite something. This feeling that, after decades of planning, it was finally happening, it was going up there, that was a tremendous moment.

NARRATOR: Launched in 2009, this incredible optical telescope has revealed that planets are far more common than we ever imagined.

GEOFF MARCY: What's amazing is not just the number of planets that Kepler has found, but the types of planets.

NARRATOR: Of the 3,500 potential planets that Kepler has spotted, some seem familiar: huge gas giants, similar to Jupiter or Saturn, or smaller, rocky worlds that could be like Earth, Venus, Mars or Mercury. But others are straight out of science fiction, like Kepler 16b, which orbits a double star, just like Luke Skywalker's home planet in Star Wars. Even more bizarre is Kepler 10b. It orbits so closely to its sun that the surface is a vision of hell.

NATALIE BATALHA: Kepler 10b is a scorched world. It's got an ocean bigger than the Pacific Ocean, but it's an ocean, not of water, but of molten lava. That star-facing side, as it orbits, has surface temperatures in excess of that required to melt iron. So this is a blow-torched world.

NARRATOR: But for Kepler, these oddities are just a sideshow, because its primary mission is to find a planet that might have the right conditions for alien life, a planet like Earth. Now, Kepler might be closing in on just such a world. The Kepler data suggests that potentially habitable planets are out there. And, applying the principles of biology and evolution, scientists are even beginning to guess how extraterrestrials could have adapted to their environments.

ANDY KNOLL: The best speculation recognizes that there are rules to the game. Any life that we can contemplate is going to be subject to the laws of chemistry and physics.

GEOFF MARCY: Kepler is finding worlds that, as far as we can tell, have the right environment, the correct temperatures, suitable for life, as we know it.

NARRATOR: Kepler is unique among space telescopes. Unlike the Hubble, which turned its gaze far and wide and sent back stunning images of the cosmos, Kepler is designed to stare fixedly at one small patch of sky, taking the same snapshot day in and day out for years on end. It began, as with any new telescope, with what astronomers call "first light."

NATALIE BATALHA: Kepler's first light image came down to us, at NASA Ames, about 24 hours after we ejected the disk cover. As it filled my computer screen, the image that came to my mind was like champagne filling a glass, with all of these stars being the little bubbles. It was very exciting. Every single tiny dot that you see is a star that is in the field of view of Kepler.

NARRATOR: Kepler is focused on a small patch of the sky near the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan.

NATALIE BATALHA: In that area of sky are four-and-a-half-million stars, in our galaxy, alone.

NARRATOR: But Kepler isn't looking for stars. It's looking for planets that orbit the stars. But that's a problem, because Kepler can't directly see planets. Planets are much smaller and dimmer than stars, so they get lost in the glare. So Kepler is looking for something called a transit, which occurs when a planet passes in front of the star. As it does so, it dims the light by a fraction. That dimming is what Kepler is designed to detect. It's a principle that can be illustrated with a distant tower and a spotlight.

DAVID CHARBONNEAU (Harvard University): Okay, let's imagine there's a moth flying around that spotlight. Could we ever hope to see the moth? No way. The moth, although it does reflect a tiny bit of the spotlight's light, it's far too feeble for us to see that.

NARRATOR: Since the light reflected off a planet is typically 10-billion times fainter than the light emitted by its star, detecting a planet might seem impossible. But Kepler has a way around that problem.

DAVE CHARBONNEAU: If the moth passes in front of the bright light, a little bit of the light that was going to reach us obviously gets blocked by the moth. Then we are able to detect the moth by measuring very carefully that very subtle change in the total brightness of the spotlight.

NARRATOR: The bigger the moth, the more light it blocks, and the more the light dims.

DAVE CHARBONNEAU: In exactly the same fashion, that's how we can detect small planets orbiting other stars and even measure their sizes.

NARRATOR: That's Kepler's primary mission: to watch thousands of stars for signs of a transit. Scientists plot the brightness of each star in Kepler's view on a graph, to see how it changes over time. This is an actual plot of one star over two weeks. Sure enough, every three days there's a tiny dip in brightness, revealing a planet orbiting this star once every three days. Just like the moth, the bigger the planet, the more light it blocks. In this plot, a huge planet transits in front of its star, causing a much larger dip. Right from the start, Kepler saw stars dimming. By June, 2010, 15 months after launch, Kepler had found over 700 potential planets.

NATALIE BATALHA: The sheer numbers of planets out there is really quite stupendous. Here, you see a small sample of them. And the planets range in size, from, you know, from a half the radius of the earth up to things that are several times larger than Jupiter.

NARRATOR: Already, Kepler's discoveries are changing what we know about alien planets.

SARA SEAGER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Kepler has revolutionized our view of planets and planetary systems in our galaxy. It turns out that any kind of planet is possible, within the laws of physics and chemistry. Any planet you can conceive of can exist in any location in a planetary system.

NARRATOR: Extrapolating from the Kepler data, some estimates put the number of planets in the universe in the trillions. But what everyone really wants to know is, "Do any of these planets have life?" To answer that, we have to go back to the basics and ask, "Is the universe full of the same stuff everywhere? Are the elements needed for life, as we know it, commonplace?" The lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, were made in the moments after the Big Bang. Other elements are made in stars, a product of nuclear fusion during the star's normal life cycle or produced when some stars explode as supernovas, scattering these essential building blocks into space.

ANDY KNOLL: Every molecule in your body, every element in your body, was generated sometime in the distant past, by processes within stars.

NARRATOR: Among the most common are the elements that are essential to all living things on Earth: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Life could be anywhere or everywhere in our galaxy, but where should we look? Because planets are proving to be so abundant, Chris McKay thinks we might as well search for life that follows rules we already understand.

CHRIS MCKAY (NASA): I know how to search for organic material. I know what the signatures that would be important are. So, the search for life starts off following water, following carbon, not because we can prove that's the only way to do it, but because that's the only way we know how to do it.

NARRATOR: Sifting through the Kepler data, scientists have made a deliberate decision to look for planets that resemble the one place they know can sustain life: the earth.

GEOFF MARCY: We know that the earth is habitable, indeed, inhabited. And so, surely there's some drive to find another Earth-like planet elsewhere in the universe.

NATALIE BATALHA: Humanity is on a quest to find life. Kepler's objective is to find out if planets like Earth, where w have this one example of life, if planets like that exist.

NARRATOR: Earth, as we know, is teeming with life. Organisms have evolved to exploit every niche, from beneath the waves to the highest mountains. So what's so special about our pale blue world? For most scientists, the key feature of Earth is the presence of liquid water on its surface. Chris McKay has spent years studying this relationship between life and liquid water.

CHRIS MCKAY: The question is can life survive without water? This is the place to find the answer to that question. This is the desert.

NARRATOR: In this baked dry sand, near the Mojave Desert, in California, Chris is looking for critters that can live without water. One possible candidate is these small black patches, which are, in fact, alive.

CHRIS MCKAY: It looks like a black flat rock but, in fact, it's a layer of photosynthetic microorganisms.

NARRATOR: But Chris has discovered that, although they look bone dry, they actually require water.

CHRIS MCKAY: The microorganisms have solved the problem of the lack of water in a very ingenious way. The organisms secrete organic materials, which help to hold water. They make little super-sponges, and so, the rare moisture that's there, they can hold it. They can hold it longer than the normal sand. These organisms have created a little tiny micro-habitat in which they live.

NARRATOR: Chris has studied organisms across the earth: in the dry valleys of Antarctica; and in the Atacama Desert, in Chile, the driest desert in the world. And everywhere, he's found life using similar survival strategies.

CHRIS MCKAY: We have never found an organism on Earth, the driest, coldest places, and we've looked—and boy, have we looked—we've never found an organism that can make do without liquid water.

NARRATOR: So life, as we know it, needs liquid water. Fortunately, water is made of two of the most abundant elements in the universe: hydrogen and oxygen. We've even detected water vapor in the clouds of gas in outer space. What's harder to find is a planet that could have liquid water, where the temperature is warm enough to melt ice, yet below the point where water boils to steam.

CHRIS MCKAY: The sun is like a fire, it provides light and through that light, warmth. And that warmth is what keeps a planet warm enough to support liquid water. If it's too far from the sun, the water will be ice. If it's too close, the water will be steam. So it needs to be right in that zone where the water can be liquid. Sometimes we call it the Goldilocks zone: it's not too hot; it's not too cold; it's just right.

NARRATOR: Kepler's core mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the Goldilocks zone. Remarkably, this data, that shows the timing of each transit, is also the key to finding out how hot a planet might be. The more frequent the planet transits, the hotter it is.

CHRIS MCKAY: When a planet is very close to the star, it's going around quite rapidly. The period is very short—it can go around in weeks even—around the central star. As a planet is further away, it takes much longer.

NARRATOR: A planet that orbits once a week will be close to its star and very hot; a planet that orbits every 10 years will be very far away and too cold. So scientists were looking for a planet orbiting a Sun-like star roughly once a year, like Earth. On May 12, 2009, just three days after the spacecraft started collecting data, it saw the light from the star Kepler 22-b dim ever so slightly. Ten months later it dimmed again. If it happened once more in another 10 months, it would confirm Kepler was seeing a transit. Sure enough, on December 15, 2010, the star dimmed once more. Kepler had discovered its first planet in the habitable zone: Kepler 22-b, over 600 light-years away.

NATALIE BATALHA: Kepler 22-b was the first confirmation of a planet that was just the right temperature. So it's in the Goldilocks zone, and it's orbiting a star very much like our own sun.

NARRATOR: The researchers can use the amount of dimming to measure the size of the planet. It works out at about 2.4 times the radius of the earth. So, now comes the next mystery: what kind of planet is Kepler 22-b? What is it made of? The key to a planet's composition is its size. When planets form, they start off solid, made of rock and ice. If they become big enough, they're able to hold on to huge amounts of gas—hydrogen and helium, the most abundant—these become the gas giants, like Jupiter and Neptune. Smaller planets, like Earth, are primarily rocky, and can only hold onto a thin atmosphere. Kepler 22-b is in the middle: bigger than all the rocky planets in our system, but smaller than the gas giants. So is it mainly gas or rock? Astronomer Geoff Marcy is attempting to find out. Tonight, he's using the Keck Telescope, in Hawaii, which he's operating via video link from Berkeley, California, over 2,000 miles away.

JOEL: So, Geoff, I just opened up and did an autofocus. We've got about .85 parts.

GEOFF MARCY: That's great, fantastic.

JOEL: And we're setup and ready to go on your first target.

GEOFF MARCY: Tonight we're going to be observing Kepler 22-b, the planet which is still somewhat mysterious. We don't know whether the planet is rocky, like the earth, or gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn.

NARRATOR: To answer this question, Geoff is using a very different way of detecting planets. Nicknamed the "wobble method," this technique was used to find some of the first exoplanets, and it's also used to find out more about the planets discovered by Kepler.

GEOFF MARCY: We can detect planets around other stars, even without seeing the planets, by watching the star. Let's create a star and, of course, we'd like a planet orbiting that star. Now, what's interesting is that the planet not only orbits the star, but the star is yanked on, gravitationally, by the planet. So, we see the star wobble around, and we can detect this with our telescopes, here on Earth.

NARRATOR: The Keck Telescope can see if a star is wobbling backwards and forwards in response to a planet we can't actually see.

GEOFF MARCY: But, even more beautifully, we can measure the mass of the planet, because, the more massive the planet orbiting the star, the more violently that star is yanked on gravitationally.

NARRATOR: If the telescope detects a large wobble, it means the star is being orbited by a massive planet.

GEOFF MARCY: We're heading to the Kepler field now. I'm going to set the exposure meter…

NARRATOR: Geoff takes aim at Kepler 22-b.

GEOFF MARCY: …so that we take an exposure that gives us Doppler shift precision of about 1.5 meters per second. So, we'll be able to measure the speed of the star to within plus or minus human walking speed. Here we go. And there it is: Kepler 22-b; looks beautiful.

NARRATOR: Even with this high level of precision, Geoff fails to find a measurable wobble, which means that the planet is not extremely massive.

GEOFF MARCY: So far, what we can tell is that the planet is probably not purely solid; it's not a big ball of rock.

NARRATOR: Kepler 22-b could still be a gas world, a kind of mini-Neptune, but there's another possibility that's even more intriguing. This planet might be unlike anything in our solar system: a water world.

SARA SEAGER: We do know that, as long as the planet is over seven times the earth's mass, it could possibly have liquid water in its surface. So Kepler 22-b, despite being a relatively big planet, is still in the potentially habitable category.

GEOFF MARCY: From the study of other planets, all of those somewhat-larger-than-Earth planets have lots of water, and also, perhaps, some atmosphere. So, by association, the bet is that Kepler 22-b will be a rocky planet with a very dense and thick ocean.

NARRATOR: If Geoff is right, this would be a planet completely covered in water. It's the perfect planet for a paddle. Geoff can imagine what it would be like to kayak on Kepler 22-b.

GEOFF MARCY: If you were kayaking on Kepler 22-b, you'd look overhead and you'd see a host star that would remind you of our own sun here, a yellowish star, about the same size as our sun. The gravity of the planet might be a little higher or a little lower than the earth, but not so different.

NARRATOR: But look beneath the surface, and this ocean is unlike anything on Earth.

GEOFF MARCY: The ocean would be thousands of kilometers thick. There would be no ocean floor to dive down and visit, because it would simply be too far away.

NARRATOR: Kepler 22-b could have all the ingredients for Earth-like life: energy is plentiful in sunlight from the nearby star. The necessary elements, like hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, are commonplace throughout the galaxy. But, for life to occur, these elements would have to form into a molecule with a very special property, a molecule that can self-replicate, like D.N.A.

ANDY KNOLL: Life is a chemical system, capable of Darwinian evolution. We need molecules for life that contain information. We need molecules that can mutate so that that information changes and that can be inherited. I suspect that carbon is going to be the stuff of life and that there will be information-containing-molecules, such as D.N.A.

NARRATOR: Even here on Earth, we don't know how D.N.A. first came to exist. But even if the creation of a molecule that works like D.N.A. is unlikely, life may have sheer numbers on its side.

ANDY KNOLL: It may be that only one planet in a million will give rise to life, but on the basis of Kepler, some people have suggested that there might be 10-to-the-19th planets in our galaxy or in nearby galaxies. That's a very big number, and so the probability that life exists elsewhere is pretty high.

NARRATOR: It's this emerging statistical fact that leads many scientists to be confident that extraterrestrial life does exist.

SARA SEAGER: Is there life elsewhere? Well, our galaxy alone has a hundred-billion stars.

NARRATOR: If D.N.A. or a similar self-replicating molecule has formed on any of those planets, life could have been around for some time.

ANDY KNOLL: If we go to the very oldest sedimentary rocks on our planet and look for the signature of life, it's already there. And that tells us that life arose early.

NARRATOR: But early life was limited to simple, single-celled organisms. Microbes had the earth to themselves for billions of years before complex life evolved. It may be that microbes rule our galaxy, as well.

ANDY KNOLL: The most probable life on other planets would be something much more similar to bacteria than to you or me.

NARRATOR: Of course we don't know how likely it is that complex life would evolve on an alien world.

LEWIS DARTNELL: It's still very much an open question whether life could get started on such a water world, but over billions of years, if the climate has been stable enough, evolution will have had the chance to get beyond microbial life to forests of complex advanced trees.

NARRATOR: Could plants adapt to life in an endless ocean?

LEWIS DARTNELL: On a water world, the main challenge these plants are going to face is remaining buoyant. You can't start sinking down, you want to float, perhaps by having bladders filled with gas that help you to buoy up in the water.

NARRATOR: While scientists can speculate about life on Kepler 22-b, for now, there is no way to confirm that there is water on its surface. Fortunately, it isn't the only potential life-supporting planet Kepler has found. On February 28th, 2012, nearly three years after launch, NASA announced over 1,000 potential new planets. One of these was orbiting the star KOI-2626. This potential planet is about one-and-a-half times the size of the earth, small enough that it's likely to be rocky. But there's a problem: it doesn't orbit a star like our sun. It orbits a very different kind of star.

DAVE CHARBONNEAU: When I was a kid, I was told in school that the sun is an average star, which is a complete lie. The sun is not an average star. Most stars in the galaxy are much less massive and put out much less energy than the sun. And we call these very-low-mass stars "M dwarfs." Our sun is yellow in color, very massive, very large, and compared to it, these low-mass M dwarf stars are tiny. They are only about 10 or 20 percent the size, 10 or 20 percent the mass, and they only put out one 1,000th the amount of energy.

NARRATOR: M dwarf stars, also known as red dwarfs, make up over three-quarters of all stars in the universe. Because the star is so small, it's easier to spot a small planet orbiting one. Even though an Earth-sized planet covers only about zero-point-one percent of a red dwarf, it typically dims the light by an easy-to-see one percent. Dave Charbonneau and his team have searched through the Kepler data, and they've found that more than half of all such stars have planets Earth-sized or a little larger. But could a planet orbiting such a dim star be warm enough to have oceans of water and even life?

CHRIS MCKAY: An M-type star provides much less sunlight than our star. To get the same amount of warmth, just like this dimmer fire, you have to move in closer. There's still a habitable zone. You can get close enough to the star that is warm enough for liquid water.

NARRATOR: KOI-2626.01 orbits its red dwarf star once every 38 days. But being so near to a star can create a strange situation. Gravity from the star pulls more strongly on the closest side of the planet, a slight drag that can cause one side to always face the star. Astronomers call this "tidal locking." This alien world would have a light side, on which the sun never sets, and a dark side on which the sun never rises. At first, scientists thought that this would make the planet impossible for life, because it wouldn't have an atmosphere.

CHRIS MCKAY: When we first conceived of the notion of a tidally-locked planet, even in the habitable zone, the thought was, "Well, on the dark side, it's going to be very, very cold, so cold that the atmosphere could condense out completely." All the carbon dioxide that would normally be in the atmosphere would be present as ice, forming a giant polar cap on the dark side. Ice like this; this is a chunk of carbon dioxide.

NARRATOR: But atmosphere expert Kevin Heng wasn't so sure. He builds computer simulations of alien atmospheres. He's a kind of interplanetary weather forecaster. Heng used what we know about the red dwarf planet to simulate the atmosphere, and this is what he came up with: a map of the whole planet laid out flat, the colors representing the predicted temperature.

KEVIN HENG (University of Bern): What you're seeing is a temperature map. Near the surface, right in the middle of the map, is the point where the temperatures are expected to be the highest.

NARRATOR: And this temperature difference between the hot side and cold side has a profound effect on the atmosphere. Here, on the dark side, the air cools and sinks, spreading out around the planet. That creates a wind that blows along the surface to the hot side. Here, the air heats up and rises, before returning to the cold side. So, if this planet has an atmosphere, it would have a permanent, planet-wide wind system. This reduces the temperature difference and keeps the atmosphere from freezing, which means that the planet might be habitable after all, with a stable atmosphere and, in some places, a pleasant climate.

KEVIN HENG: You probably want to live close to where the day side transitions into the night side, its so-called "day/night terminator" where temperatures are between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, so, a good spot for real estate.

NARRATOR: If there is plant life here, it would have to adapt to an endless, deep red sunset. Here on Earth, most plants capture energy with chlorophyll, a green pigment adapted to harness the yellow light from our sun. But on a red dwarf planet, with its red light, an alien plant-like species might adapt to produce different pigments. Nancy Kiang is trying to work out what those alien plants could be like. One clue is to be found in the marshes of New England.

NANCY KIANG (NASA): The sandy areas you might think are just dead areas, with no plants, but actually there's life teeming underneath.

NARRATOR: Living in the sand are layers of photosynthesizing bacteria.

NANCY KIANG: So, what we see here are different kinds of bacteria that are photosynthetic. Each layer has different pigments that absorb different wavelengths of light.

NARRATOR: The bacteria in the top layer are green. They use the same chlorophyll that plants do, because they receive the full spectrum of sunlight. But many of those frequencies get absorbed, leaving the lower layers with a different color of light. So, they have evolved new photosynthesizing molecules, adapted to that different spectrum. Studying these different molecules allows Nancy to imagine what sort of pigments would work best on alien worlds, bathed in the dim red light of a red dwarf. It leads to an intriguing suggestion.

NANCY KIANG: Very likely, these plants will try and absorb as much visible light as they can. So these plants, to our eye, might look black.

NARRATOR: Black, because the plants would need to absorb as much energy as possible from the weak sun.

LEWIS DARTNELL: Plants might find the situation actually easier to contend with, because the sun isn't moving through the sky. You can just point yourself, like a solar panel, towards the sun. But one of the other features of a tidally-locked planet would be the fearsome winds blowing constantly in the same direction. So, maybe a flat panel wouldn't actually end up being the optimal design, and you want to be a bit more flexible and giving to allow the wind to, kind of, blow through your, perhaps, fan-like shape.

NARRATOR: If there are plants, could there also be alien animals on this planet? From the wide variety of creatures that exist on Earth, we know that many seemingly bizarre creatures are possible.

ANDY KNOLL: It's fun to speculate about what life might look like on another planet. And I think it's legitimate science, insofar as it tells us that there are rules to the game: any life is going to be subject to the laws of chemistry and physics.

NARRATOR: Based on what we know about life in our world, and from what we know about the environment on this distant planet, scientists are beginning to imagine what alien animal life might look like.

LEWIS DARTNELL: On Earth, we find filter-feeders, life that filters particles or little grains of food out of the water as it wafts past them. On a planet like this, we might find a similar strategy on the land. So, maybe we'd find something like land whales that aren't filtering out plankton from the sea, like the whales in our oceans, but are great big static animals that try to filter out particle matter from the wind to feed off.

NARRATOR: Even though scientists speculate about how life might survive on truly alien worlds like this, most still believe that our best hope of finding life that we might recognize lies in finding a rocky planet, a similar size to Earth, that orbits a sun more like our own. It's a challenge of astronomical proportions.

NATALIE BATALHA: A planet as tiny as an earth, transiting across the disk of its star, is going produce a change in brightness of just one part per 10,000. Imagine the tallest hotel in New York City, and everybody has their light on, and one person in this hotel lowers the blinds by about two centimeters. That's the change in brightness that we are trying to detect from the transit of a planet as small as an earth passing in front of a star the size of our sun.

NARRATOR: So Kepler scientists scour the data for signs of a truly tiny dip, evidence of an Earth-like planet. And they find something promising around star KOI-701, 1,200 light-years away. The Keck Telescope confirms that there are at least three planets orbiting the star.

GEOFF MARCY: The third planet out, that planet is in the habitable zone, but it's also large. It's like Kepler 22-b, probably a water world.

NARRATOR: The team was about to go public, when something extraordinary happened.

NATALIE BATALHA: So 701.03 was done, in the bag, nice ribbon tied around it, ready to go off to the publisher for publication, when we got an email from one of our team members telling us that he had spotted what looks to be another interesting signal in the data.

NARRATOR: What Natalie's team member had spotted, at the last moment, could turn out to be one of Kepler's most exciting discoveries. It looked like KOI-701 didn't just have three planets orbiting it, there were four. And this new potential planet was in the right place and the right size.

GEOFF MARCY: We examined the data more carefully, and there is another planet that is smack in the habitable zone, and it's only a little bigger than the earth.

NARRATOR: It was exactly what Kepler had been searching for: a planet in the habitable zone, small enough that it could be made of water and rock, like the earth.

NATALIE BATALHA: And, so, this is something you could stand on, something that is rocky.

GEOFF MARCY: This might be the first truly Earth-analog around a Sun-like star that's ever been found.

NARRATOR: The planet, today confirmed as Kepler-62f, is over 1,200 light-years away. Even our fastest spacecraft would take many millions of years to reach it, but this could be the most Earth-like world Kepler has found.

GEOFF MARCY: And that's the amazing planet that has the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

NARRATOR: If this planet has oceans of water and rocky land masses, then the possibilities for life here could be as numerous as they are on our own planet.

ANDY KNOLL: On our planet that…we began with simple bacteria, and today we have a planet that has 10 million species of animals, plants, fungi, kelps, all sorts of things.

NARRATOR: In the oceans, the environment could be surprisingly similar to that on Earth. The density and properties of water are dictated by the laws of physics, which are universal.

LEWIS DARTNELL: What we might expect is for the aquatic or marine life to be actually pretty similar, pretty familiar to what we know on Earth, because the main consideration is being able to move through the water as efficiently as possible. So you want to be hydrodynamic, you want to be streamlined in your shape. And a very good streamlined shape is known as fusiform. You'd be kind of bullet shaped, just like most fish on Earth.

NARRATOR: This ocean could be home to a complex ecosystem, with different sizes of organism filling different ecological niches. But because this planet is 40 percent larger than Earth, it's likely to have stronger gravity. So what might we find on land?

LEWIS DARTNELL: Animals will respond to the increased gravitational pull on a larger planet, and so they would want to have body plans which are also very strong, so, with column-like legs to support their increased weight.

NARRATOR: On Earth, all vertebrates have a maximum of four legs, because all animals with a backbone evolved from a fish that had four fleshy, lobed fins. But could aliens have more legs? That's what Bill Sellers wants to find out. He usually looks at extinct species, like dinosaurs, by recreating their structure in a computer. The same technique can be applied to an alien body plan.

BILL SELLERS (The University of Manchester): When we have an alien life form, we treat the shape of the animal as the framework of the robot. We add motors to actually drive the creature, and then the trick is we get the computer to learn how to be the most effective driver for this particular shaped animal.

NARRATOR: Bill is investigating how life might move in a high-gravity environment. The computer model he's using is called a genetic algorithm. First, he creates an eight-legged alien. Then, the computer generates hundreds of random movement patterns and tests them out.

BILL SELLERS: This is a moving forward start, but, as you can see, what happens if it gets the pattern wrong? Then although it's still moving its legs, it's lost all forward velocity, and, actually, it's starting to go backwards in a very unstable way. Other examples of failures, for example, this one, what happens is the front pair of legs trip over, and then the whole thing nosedives, and because of where the weight is, the back legs are up in the air and spinning round. So, again, this is a complete failure and we wouldn't work from those.

NARRATOR: But the computer can take the best of those random patterns and combine them to produce new variations. It echoes the process of natural selection that drives evolution.

BILL SELLERS: After the evolutionary process is finished, we end up with these very stable, very efficient gaits. What the work has shown is that this eight-legged creature mechanically could cope with higher gravity.

NARRATOR: Bill's work shows that it is mechanically plausible that this new Earth-like planet could have animals with eight legs walking across its surface. If this planet does have complex animals, could it also have intelligent life? For astronomer Geoff Marcy, this is the ultimate question.

GEOFF MARCY: We really don't know. First of all, we don't know how commonly life gets kick-started. And secondly, we don't know how commonly it evolves into intelligent life.

NARRATOR: The probability of intelligent life evolving on another planet is perhaps the greatest unanswered question, but there are hints on Earth that intelligence might be the exception, not the rule.

GEOFF MARCY: Sharks, like the ones we see here, have ruled the seas for 400-million years, and yet their brains are, are no larger than peas. How could it be that after 400-million years sharks have not developed a higher intelligence? And of course the answer must be that high-I.Q. sharks compete no more successfully than the less intelligent sharks among us. And that tells us something frightening about life elsewhere in the universe: perhaps the intelligence of which we humans are so proud is not an attribute that is strongly favored in Darwinian evolution.

NARRATOR: If Geoff is right, human intelligence may be the result of a very unusual set of circumstances that just happened to make our ancestors develop bigger brains. But others, like Sara Seager, are more optimistic.

SARA SEAGER: It's a tough call about whether or not there's intelligent life around any of the nearest stars. I believe there is intelligent life out there somewhere in the galaxy and that a future generation may be able to establish contact.

NARRATOR: While the chances of intelligent life evolving may be small, the number of places it could be is huge.

NATALIE BATALHA: About 900 of these planet candidates are twice the earth's radius or smaller. So, what this collection of exoplanet candidates is telling us is that small planets, planets like Earth, might be common.

NARRATOR: Based on the Kepler data, scientists estimate that at least one in six stars has an Earth-sized planet. There could be upwards of 17-billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone.

GEOFF MARCY: Well, we are at a remarkable moment, actually. The Kepler space telescope has identified several thousand planets. But what's unexpected and remarkable is that we're finding planets that are a little bit larger than the earth that, as far as we can tell, have the correct composition—rock and water—suitable for life, as we know it.

NARRATOR: Kepler has shown us how commonplace planets outside our solar system are, suggesting our galaxy may have other places suitable for life. Kepler continued to collect data until May, 2013, when the guidance system failed and it lost its steady lock on the stars it had watched so keenly. But the hunt for alien planets is far from over: Kepler may have a second life, using pressure from sunlight to keep it oriented. And in coming years, new planet hunters will take up the quest, exploring the age-old question, "Are we alone?"

Broadcast Credits

Alex Sutherland
Nathan Williams
Ben Bowie
Rob Tinworth
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Christine Pancott
Jonathan Dacey
Ivan Hinchley
Percy Urgena
John Osborne
Steve Hopkins
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Ariam McCrary
Brittany Flynn
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Nathan Gunner
Linzy Emery
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Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

© 2014 Darlow Smithson Productions Ltd.

All Rights Reserved

Additional Material © 2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

Produced by DSP for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with Channel 5

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.


(CGI recreation Kepler 10b)
© Darlow Smithson Productions


Natalie Batalha
NASA Ames Research Center
David Charbonneau
Harvard University
Lewis Dartnell
University of Leicester
Kevin Heng
University of Bern
Nancy Y. Kiang
Andrew Knoll
Harvard University
Geoff Marcy
University of California, Berkeley
Chris Mckay
Sara Seager
Bill Sellers
The University of Manchester

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