Want to Spot Earth's First Cousin? Look for the Swan in the Sky

Behold the constellation Cygnus, home to a planet that looks more like ours than any we've found.
Wikimedia Commons

From here on Earth, the planet Kepler-186f is a faint spot in the chaotic and twinkling universe. Its star is dim and far, far away.

But Kepler-186f is making headlines on Earth because, despite its distance, it looks a lot like our own planet.

The Kepler-186 system is in the constellation Cygnus, which stargazers will know as the easy-to-spot swan in the northern hemisphere's summertime sky. 

From a human perspective, that makes it unusual. Kepler-186f is the first Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around its star that scientists have ever found (!).

We know Kepler-186f is about 10 percent bigger than Earth and that it's cooler and dimmer than the environment back home. Its star is about half the size of the sun. If we could travel to the planet, we'd feel heavier due to a stronger gravitational pull and everything would look kind of orange. 

From here on Earth, some 500 light years away, we can't see Kepler-186f at all. But you can still look in its direction. 

You won't see how awesome Cygnus is by just looking up. Molecular dust clouds in the region form a veil called the Great Rift, which makes it hard to see anything more than a hint of what's happening there. And, oh, is it happening.

Cygnus is home to the Kepler system and our newly discovered first-cousin planet, but the constellation is also known for being a major star factory.

You might even call it "a bubbling cauldron of star birth," as NASA did. 

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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