On Tuesday, scientists reported evidence from the Kepler satellite that two Earth-sized planets are orbiting a nearby star about 1,000 light years from earth -- practically our back yard compared to the extent of our Milky Galaxy, but far too distant to visit with current spacecraft.

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Americans were enthralled by fake reports of an alien invasion in the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast on Halloween Eve in 1938. Hundreds of science fiction movies from the 1902 silent epic "A Trip to the Moon" (featured in the current film "Hugo") to "Star Wars" to this year's "Cowboys and Aliens" have fed a deep curiosity about intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe.

Hang on to your hats, because reality is starting to catch up.

On Tuesday, scientists reported evidence from the Kepler satellite that two Earth-sized planets are orbiting a nearby star about 1,000 light years from earth -- practically our back yard compared to the extent of our Milky Galaxy, but far too distant to visit with current spacecraft.

These planets, named Kepler 20-e and Kepler 20-f, have sizes and masses similar to the Earth, and their host star is similar to our sun. But the resemblance ends there. Both orbit very rapidly -- in 6.1 days and 19.6 days, respectively, compared to 365 days for an Earth year -- so both are much closer to their star than the Earth is to the sun.

Meg Urry

This makes both planets way too hot to support life as we know it. Still, the pace of planet discovery is astonishing. Sometime in the next few years, scientists will likely discover Earth-like planets that are capable of supporting life.

Our sun is just one star among the hundreds of billions that make up the Milky Way galaxy, which itself is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Over the last 15 years, astronomers have found hundreds of planets orbiting stars in our corner of the Milky Way and the list will pass 1,000 next year.

Planets are plentiful. Discoveries of planets are limited only by the capabilities of current telescopes and instruments and by the time needed to sample several full orbits of a planet around its host star.

Most "extra-solar planets" (or "exoplanets") have been found by measuring tiny Doppler shifts (wavelength shifts) in the light of the host star. With this method it is easier to find heavy planets than light ones, and easier to find planets in close rather than distant orbits. So most of the planets found so far are big ones, similar to Jupiter or Neptune in our solar system, only orbiting much, much closer than the Earth to their host star. This is kind of like surveying your neighborhood for sumo wrestlers: You find far fewer than the number of other people who live there, and way fewer than the population of the world. So the 716 known exoplanets are just the tip of the iceberg.

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