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Worlds that could support LIFE found among 715 new planets

Gazing at magnificent globes pays off for scientists

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Boffins working with the Kepler space telescope have verified the existence of 715 planets in what is the project's largest mass-discovery to date.

"This is the largest windfall of planets, not candidates that has ever been announced at one time," said Douglas Hudgins, exoplanet exploration scientist for NASA's astrophysics division.

"These results establish that planetary systems like our own solar system are in fact common."

A panel of scientists from the project said that the newly discovered planets, orbiting stars observed by Kepler, were between the size of Earth and Neptune, and have been primarily spotted in close orbit to their parent stars.

Four of the discovered celestial bodies were deemed to be within the "habitable" zone of their stars, where life as we know it is sustainable; those planets range from 2 to 2.5 times the size of Earth.

The researchers credited the massive finding to a new discovery technique which analyzes stars with multiple planet candidates traveling with specific orbits. In doing so, the scientists were able to quickly spot and verify the cosmic bodies were indeed bona fide planets.

In particular, the discoveries found that small planets orbiting close to their parent stars are much more common than originally believed.

The team noted that future missions, including the 2017 launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the 2018 James Webb Space Telescope deployment, could further examine the planets and determine atmospheric conditions.

In the meantime, scientists believe that they will be able to use the new analytical techniques to expand what had been a trickle of new planet verifications into a flow of several hundred new exoplanet discoveries per year.

According to Sarah Seger, professor of physics and planetary science for MIT, many of those planets are likely to be far more like our Earth than we previously believed.

"Whatever Kepler looks at, it finds many small planets," Seger explained.

"It is interesting to look at the exoplanet data set and see scaled down versions of our solar system, we are putting ourselves into context." ®

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