By Kerry SHERIDAN
Miami (AFP) May 10, 2016
NASA on Tuesday announced the discovery of 1,284 new planets outside our solar system, more than doubling the number of known exoplanets found with the Kepler space telescope.
"This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth," said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington.
The unmanned Kepler space observatory, which launched in 2009, has been scanning 150,000 stars for signs of orbiting bodies, particularly those that might be able to support life.
It works by observing a dimming in the light of a star, known as a transit, each time an orbiting planet passes in front of it.
"Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler," NASA said in a statement.
Of the new trove of 1,284, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size, the US space agency said.
"Nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool."
- 'Goldilocks' zone -
The addition of these nine means that 21 exoplanets now are known to be possibly circling their stars in the habitable zone, and may harbor life.
However, Kepler is a "statistical mission," NASA scientists said, and is not designed to probe further into the conditions of certain planets that exist in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" of their stars -- neither too hot nor too cold to sustain life.
That means even the most advanced space telescopes now being built, including the James Webb Space Telescope, may not be able to shed much more light on the nature of life on another of these exoplanets, if life does exist.
"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars," said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA headquarters.
"This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe."
The latest trove of planets was confirmed by a new statistical method, instead of the time-consuming one-by-one process that was used previously.
This statistical analysis method can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously, according to Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University, and lead author of a paper describing the findings in The Astrophysical Journal.
- Emergency event -
Kepler survived an emergency last month, when some kind of "transient event... triggered a barrage of false alarms that eventually overwhelmed the system," NASA said.
Kepler suffered another crisis in 2013, related to a problem with the reaction wheels that typically keep the spacecraft steady.
NASA saved it back then, and set the spacecraft on a new mission called K2, to study supernovas, star clusters and far-off galaxies.
The latest failure, which NASA described as leaving the spacecraft in a "fuel-intensive coma," was discovered on April 8.
Engineers on Earth were able to rescue the spacecraft and restored its ability to collect data on April 22.
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2017 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement|