Kepler mission announces two exoplanets in the habitable "zone"

The planets are the right temperature and size to support liquid water.

The Kepler mission, a NASA project to find and profile planets outside of our solar system, has announced the discovery of two potentially habitable exosolar planets.

The planets are part of a system, Kepler-62, which is thought to contain five roughly earth-sized planets. The biggest is almost twice earth's size; the smallest slightly more than half.

That alone is notable, because the normal way the Kepler mission identifies planets is by measuring the gravitational they exert on their star. A big enough planet will pull the star slightly closer to the earth when it's on one side, and slightly further when it's on the other. That causes a minute fluctuation in the brightness of the star, measured from our planet, which the Kepler orbital observatory can sense.

But only the largest gas giants have such an effect, and while they are noteworthy finds in themselves, they aren't habitable. To find smaller planets, the mission looks at stars which have other fluctuations in light – due to planets passing in front of them. They then have to model every possible reason why those fluctuations could occur, and hope that they find that the most likely cause is exoplanets traversing the star.

The planets which they've found this way aren't just earth sized, though. Two of them, each measuring around 1.5 times the size of earth, are roughly the same distance away from their star as we are. Their orbits take a third and two thirds of an earth year each, but, because their star is less bright than our sun, they receive 1.2 and 0.4 times the light, respectively, that we do.

That will equal one hot planet and one cold one – but either of them might be in the so-called "habitable zone", where liquid water can exist. And liquid water is the only universal prerequisite we know for life.

The authors note that their method cannot tell if the planets are even rocky, as opposed to gas giants, let alone whether they actually have an atmosphere or water. But they are some of the best candidates we've found to date.

And crucially, we've found them fast. The Kepler telescope has been in orbit for around half its expected life, but it's already produced a vast amount of data to crunch. It's discovered almost 3,000 possible exoplanets, and has already found one that could have water. If the hit rate stays high, there could be many more.

Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer for NASA's mission is named. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”