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Scientists spot 'special and familiar' Earth-like planet with a sun-like star

Twinsies! A likely exoplanet in the Kepler-160 system reminds scientists of home.

Does the Kepler-160 planet look anything like Earth? We just don't know.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

If you like dreaming of far-off planets that might be a bit like Earth, I've got a new destination for your fantasies: the star Kepler-160 and the exoplanet KOI-456.04. 

A study led by astrophysicist René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany investigated the planets around Kepler-160, which is located around 3,000 light-years away. The data shows that a likely exoplanet there (an exoplanet is a planet located outside of our own solar system) may enjoy a very Earth-like relationship with its star.

This graphic shows the Earth's relationship to the sun and potential exoplanet KOI-456.04's relationship to its star Kepler-160.

MPS/René Heller

The team published its research in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on Thursday.

The Max Planck Institute described KOI-456.04 as "more than just another potentially habitable world," saying the light from its star "is very much like the daylight seen on our home planet." 

The exoplanet's orbital period is also similar to Earth's. KOI-456.04 is bigger than Earth, but still less than twice the size of our own planet.  

Most of the potentially Earth-like planets spotted by scientists have been in residence around red dwarf stars, which are known for stellar flare-ups that could make the planets in their systems uninhabitable. The Kepler-160 star, however, resembles our own sun in size and surface temperature. 

Researchers had already discovered two exoplanets around Kepler-160 that would be too hot for habitability. They noticed KOI-456.04 when trying to figure out some quirks in the orbit of one of those planets. The team now suspects there are four planets in the system.

KOI-456.04 is located in the system's habitable zone, a place where liquid water could exist on its surface. "KOI-456.01 is relatively large compared to many other planets that are considered potentially habitable," Heller said. "But it's the combination of this less-than-double the size of the Earth planet and its solar type host star that make it so special and familiar." 

Before you get your hopes up for Earth 2.0, keep in mind that Kepler-160 is too far away to visit and we don't know what its atmosphere looks like. 

There is also some uncertainty about the planet's very existence. "It cannot currently be ruled out completely that KOI-456.04 is in fact a statistical fluke or a systematic measurement error instead of a genuine planet," the institute said, though the team estimates there's an 85% chance it is indeed a planet.

The researchers hope a future space telescope, like the European Space Agency's Plato mission, will be able to confirm the exoplanet. Until then, we can imagine what it might be like on KOI-456.04. Could be some good sunbathing there.