Using publicly available data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) estimate that six percent of red dwarf stars in the galaxy have Earth-size planets in the “habitable
zone,” the range of distances from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet might be suitable for liquid water.
The majority of the sun’s closest stellar neighbors are red dwarfs. Researchers now believe that an Earth-size planet with a moderate temperature may be just 13 light-years away.
“We don’t know if life could exist on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, but the findings pique my curiosity and leave me wondering if the cosmic cradles of life are more diverse than we humans have imagined,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
The research team analyzed 95 planet candidates in the Kepler catalog orbiting 64 red dwarf stars. Most of these candidates aren’t the right size or temperature to be considered Earth-like, as defined by the size relative to Earth and the distance from the host star. However, three candidates are both temperate and smaller than twice the size of Earth.
Red dwarf stars are smaller, cooler, and fainter than the sun. An average red dwarf is only one-third as large and one-thousandth as bright as the sun. Consequently, the not too hot or not too cold habitable zone would be much closer to a cooler star than it is to the sun.