NASA telescope finds 10 more planets that could have life

NASA's Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star's habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

Scientists found the planet candidates in a final batch of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope observations of 200,000 sample stars in the constellation Cygnus. The habitable zone is another way to describe the "Goldilocks", or flawless, distance from the star where liquid water could hypothetically pool on a rocky surface, meaning it could support life.

"What's exciting about today is we have taken our telescope and we have counted up how many planets are similar to the Earth in this part of the sky", Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist, said at the conference. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

It seems that nature commonly makes rocky planets up to about 75 percent bigger than Earth. But researchers don't know much more than that.

NASA announced the latest findings in its hunt for friendly exoplanets on Monday, and the haul includes 219 new candidates. "Both results have significant implications for the search for life", NASA reports.

Before Kepler, astronomers only knew of giant Jupiter-sized exoplanets, some in astonishingly tight orbits around their stars.

Data on the 10 new planets is publicly available in NASA's Exoplanet Archive. "Intermediate-size planets between these two size groups are relatively rare".

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For more information about Kepler Exoplanet Week, go to nasa.gov/kepler/exoplanetweek. "So I'm really excited to see what people are going to do with this catalog".

The discoveries bring the total number of suspected exoplanets - planets outside our solar system - found by the Kepler space telescope to more than 4,000. A dozen of the planets that seem to be in the potentially habitable zone circle Earth-like stars, not cooler red dwarfs. While the catalog from the Kepler mission, the first four years Kepler was in space, will not change after Monday, the catalog from K2 may change and grow in the future.

The original Kepler mission launched in 2009 and was completed in 2012. This turned into the K2 mission. The presence of liquid water means that a planet could potentially develop life, or one day host a human colony.

Scientists were even able to estimate the size and density of the planets. In the middle are roughly Neptune-size worlds and at the other end of the scale are smaller Earth-analogues.

KOI-7711, an unconfirmed exoplanet at this time, appears to be our best candidate for an Earth-like alien world.

Like Kepler, TESS will use a transit method for observing planets as they pass in front of their parent stars.

The K2 mission, which began in 2014, is extending Kepler's legacy to new parts of the sky and new fields of study, adding to NASA's "arc of discovery".

  • Toni Ryan