The number of known planets in the universe just skyrocketed.
NASA’s Kepler Space telescope has identified more than 1,200 new planets outside the solar system — known as “exoplanets,” the space agency announced Tuesday. The discovery brings the total catalog of known exoplanets to 3,200, and of those, more than 2,300 were discovered by the Kepler telescope.
“Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy,” NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz said. “Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars.”
An estimated 550 of the newly identified planets are about the same size as Earth and have the same rocky surface. Nine planets exist in the “goldilocks zone,” meaning they have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to form, said Natalie Batalha, a Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. NASA knows of 21 goldilocks planets.
Batalha said scientists are particularly interested in two newly discovered planets that are similar to Earth in size and temperature: Kepler 1683b and Kepler 1229b.
For four years, the Kepler telescope watched 150,000 stars to find possible orbiting planets. The telescope looks for when a star dims, which signals that something has passed by and blocked its light, Princeton University Associate Research Scholar Timothy Morton said.
The phenomenon isn’t enough to confirm the existence of a planet — an asteroid could create the same effect. To find out whether something’s a planet or an impostor, Kepler runs a state-of-the-art mass statistical analysis comparing the signals to those of known planets, he said. Kepler analyzed 4,700 candidates using this system before confirming the new number.
Before Kepler, NASA depended on ground-based telescopes to discover new planets, which limited the amount NASA could study and made confirming them more difficult, and only confirmed 984 planets. Now, Kepler allows NASA to access to smaller, fainter stars.
Kepler is continuing to search for exoplanets as part of its K2 extended mission. NASA plans to complete a report of the planets found by September 2017.
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