NASA's Kepler space telescope has spotted 219 new potential planets, of which at least 10 are near-Earth-size, with conditions suitable to host life. This brings the total number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to 4,034, of which 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets, which are planets that orbit a star and are outside our solar system. Out of the roughly 50 near-Earth-sized habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler so far, more than 30 have been verified.
NASA launched the Kepler space telescope on March 7, 2009 to discover and observe Earth-sized exoplanets in certain regions of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Although the Kepler mission was originally planned for 3-and-a-half years, the mission was extended due to unexpected noise in the data, which meant that NASA needed more time to collect data that was meaningful and significant.
The results, using Kepler data, suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalogue will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy.
The findings were presented at a news conference Monday at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.
"The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near-Earth analogues - planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth," said Mario Perez, Kepler programme scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth," Perez said.
The Kepler space telescope hunts for planets by detecting the minuscule drop in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet traverses in front of it, called a transit. This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalogue, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler's observations during the first four years of its primary mission. This data will enable scientists to determine what planetary populations from rocky bodies the size of Earth, to gas giants the size of Jupiter, make up the galaxy's planetary demographics.
Here is NASA's official announcement of the discovery:
(With PTI inputs)