Since its launch on March 7, 2009, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has been on a mission to discover earth-like planets orbiting other stars (like our sun, which is relatively small compared to other stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way).
After continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars beyond our solar system and discovering 4,000 candidate planets, NASA announced on Tuesday that another eight of those candidates have in fact been verified as planets that are orbiting other stars, bringing the total count of verified planets to 1,000.
Even more exciting, and significant, is the fact that two of the newly verified planets share two crucial similarities with our planet, Earth. According to NASA:
- they are located in their distant suns’ habitable zone
- they are likely made of rock
NASA describes habitable zones as “the range of distances from the host star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet,” meaning, the temperatures on the planet are just right for water to exist. For more information about the habitable zone, check out this video:
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been to finding Earth twins around other sun-like stars. These are the planets we’re looking for,” said Fergal Mullally, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at Ames who led the analysis of a new candidate catalog.
“Two of the newly validated planets, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, are less than 1.5 times the diameter of Earth. Kepler-438b, 475 light-years away, is 12 percent bigger than Earth and orbits its star once every 35.2 days. Kepler-442b, 1,100 light-years away, is 33 percent bigger than Earth and orbits its star once every 112 days,” NASA adds about the two earthlike planets.
The agency also registered another 554 new candidate planets between May 2009 and April 2013, raising the total number of potential planets to 4,175. Out of those 554 candidates:
- eight are between 1-2 times the size of Earth and orbit in their hosting sun’s habitable zone
- six of those suns (stars) are similar to our sun in size and temperature
- all candidates require follow-up observations to verify if they are actual planets.
“I’m over the moon! We now have a sizable bunch of small planet candidates orbiting in the habitable zone of [sunlike] stars,” said Natalie Batalha, a research astronomer in the Space Sciences Division of NASA Ames Research Center and the Kepler Mission Scientist. “This is tremendously good news for Kepler’s census and for the search for life beyond Earth.”
Scientists are now working on Kepler’s updated habitable exoplanets catalog covering four years of data and using more sophisticated software than in the past, which is more sensitive to signs of small, Earth-size planets.
“We now know the universe is teeming with planets,” she says. “The next step is to figure out if the universe is teeming with life,” says Debra Fischer, a Professor of Astronomy at Yale University.
For more info about the Kepler mission, head over to NASA’s official blog right here.
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Image Credit #1: “Flickr
Image Credit #2: “Artist’s Rendering Of Kepler’s Target Region In The Milky Way” by Jon Lomberg / via NASA.gov
Image Credit #3: “NASA Kepler’s Hall of Fame” by Unknown Artist / via NASA.gov