NASA telescope finds 10 more planets that could have life

An artist's impression of a new planet

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.

The planet candidates, announced this afternoon by the U.S. space agency, are in the final catalogue from Kepler's survey of the patch of sky in our galaxy known as the Cygnus constellation. "This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets-a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds".

One of those planets — KOI7711 — is the closest analog to Earth astronomers have seen in terms of size and the energy it gets from its star, which dictates temperatures.

During a four-year mission, Kepler found 2,335 confirmed planets and another 1,699 candidates, bringing its tally to 4,034.

Kepler's latest mission, K2, now observes several locations around the plane of our solar system, as the telescope uses light pressure from the Sun to stabilize its observations. But Kepler has revealed far more variety. Space.com reports that the telescope stars at a single patch of sky looking for "alien planets".

The latest batch of over 200 planets can be separated into two distinct groups - Earth-size planets and gaseous planets smaller than Neptune. That planet is situated around the closest star. K2, which has found over 100 different exoplanets so far, was started as a way to give the telescope a second life after Kepler suffered multiple mission-threatening technological setbacks.

In the search for life, Fulton believes it will be better to focus on super-Earths.

This sharpens the dividing line between potentially habitable planets and those that are inhospitable to life as we know it, the researchers said. From that effort, they were able to surmise what Benjamin Fulton, the lead author on this study, called "a major new division in the family tree of exoplanets" during a press conference about the news.

Speaking about the discovery Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington said: "Answering the question "are we alone" is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal". During that first mission, the craft lost the functionality of one of its reaction wheels. The talk among scientists at a Kepler conference in California this weekend is that it is closer to 60 percent, he said.

"Yeah, it feels a bit like the end of an era", said Susan Thompson, a Kepler researcher at the SETI Institute. "We can imagine the day where we actually take direct images of planets like the Earth in the habitable zone of sun-like stars".

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