Kepler space telescope spots 1,284 new planets
And nine of them are similar to Earth, says NASA
It's barely been 30 years since NASA spotted its first planet outside our solar system but on Tuesday the agency reported its biggest collection of sightings to date – 1,284 confirmed planets, along with 1,327 additional probable sightings and 707 possibles.
The data comes from NASA's Kepler space telescope, which has been scanning the heavens since 2009 looking for the telltale light signatures caused when a planet moves across the face of a distant sun.
"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy," said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters.
"Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars. 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 vast majority of the new planets are gas giants, which due to their size are easier to spot. But NASA's astroboffins said that 550 of the new finds are rocky planets like Earth, and of those nine are in the so-called Goldilocks zone – at just the right distance from their suns to allow for the existence of liquid water and thus the possibility of life as we know it.
"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," said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.
The discoveries are all the more remarkable because of the problems NASA has been having with the Kepler telescope. In 2013, two of the four reaction wheels used to stabilize the 'scope failed, but NASA engineers found a way to balance the instrument using the pressure of the sun's wind on the spacecraft's solar panels.
There was a further crisis this April when the telescope switched itself into emergency mode for an unknown reason. After a week of crisis management NASA managed to regain control of Kepler and resume its K2 mission, to look for exoplanets and possibly supernovas. ®