Published: Tue, June 20, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jose Becker

NASA's Kepler mission finds 10 Earth-size exoplanets, 209 others

NASA's Kepler mission finds 10 Earth-size exoplanets, 209 others

Kepler habitable zone planet candidates, plotted by temperature of star and energy received from its star.

NASA announced the discovery of 10 potentially habitable Earth-like planets outside our solar system Monday.

Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate said, "The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs - planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth".

For Kepler's first four years, it stared at a patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation. Monday's announcement of a long list of new planets credited to Kepler will be the last.

The Kepler telescope has added several hundred new candidate exoplanets to its stable of 4034, including 10 that are near-Earth-size, in orbits that would allow liquid water at the surface.

NASA says the telescope is able to accomplish this by detecting a drop in a star's brightness, which happens when a planet passes in front of it. Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist, said in the release that the telescope's catalog will serve as a foundation to answer the question of "how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?"

Of the 219 new planet candidates, 10 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.

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With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Scientists went back through all the data Kepler gathered during its first four years to make sure they didn't miss anything.

The presence of water is seen as a key factor for the existence of life. In the middle are roughly Neptune-size worlds and at the other end of the scale are smaller Earth-analogues.

These planets are usually 1.6 times the size of Earth, with rocky terrain. Researchers are now using the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if these planets had atmosphere. 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. Each star will be observed for 30 days.

In the mid-2020s, NASA will launch another telescope called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST.

A follow-up study, described today by astronomer Benjamin Fulton of the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, fine-tuned the size measurements for some 2000 Kepler planets using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

"I'm looking forward to 2030s", said Courtney Dressing, NASA Sagan Fellow. A dozen of the planets that seem to be in the potentially habitable zone circle Earth-like stars, not cooler red dwarfs.

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