The important news in the exoplanet hunting community at the moment is that NASA has recently announced that its Kepler space telescope mission has discovered no fewer than 715 new planets in multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system.
Most of them are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. Thisdiscovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to the Earth. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate said, "That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, and portend to a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.”
Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique called multiplicity that can be applied to many planets at once, when they are found in systems that harbour more than one planet around the same star. It relies in part on the logic of probability, it is a process that ultimately verifies multiple planet candidates in bulk and is unveiling a veritable bonanza of new worlds." These multiple-planet systems are fertile grounds for studying individual planets and the configuration of planetary neighbourhoods. This provides clues to planet formation.
Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their sun'shabitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water. One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.
"From this study we learn planets in these multi-systems are small and their orbits are flat and circular - resembling pancakes - not your classical view of an atom," said Jason Rowe, research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and co-leader of the research. "The more we explore the more we find familiar traces of ourselves amongst the stars that remind us of home."
This latest discovery brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to nearly 1,700. As we continue to reach toward the stars, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy.
Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. Discoveries include more than 3,600 planet candidates, of which 961 have been verified as bona-fide worlds.
For more information about the Kepler space telescope, visit:
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