NASA telescope finds 10 more planets that could have life

NASA Kepler spacecraft

NASA discovered 219 new suspected planets using the Kepler Space Telescope. That group includes almost 50 near-Earth size planets in the habitable zone, with 30 verified.

But for all the technical talk about transits, methods and data, Kepler scientist Mario Perez drove home the most exciting part of Monday's announcement.

With Monday's addition of planets, the original Kepler mission now has resulted in the identificatoin of 4,043 planet candidates.

One study, also presented at the conference, has discovered a clear dividing line between rocky planets larger than Earth and gassy planets smaller than Neptune. Ten of these planets are rocky and exist in their solar system's "Goldilocks zone" - the region where conditions are just right for liquid water to exist.

The 219 new planet candidates are part of the more than 4,000 planet candidates and 2,300 confirmed planets Kepler has identified to date. "Both results have significant implications for the search for life".

Kepler performs its mission by gathering extremely stable observations of distant stars, and watches for when the light from those stars dims, due to a solid object (most likely a planet) passing between the telescope and that star.

Read: A Planet Hotter Than Most Stars?

The final catalog of planet candidates will help researchers discover how many planets in the galaxy are Earth-like.

The data indicate "a major new division in the family tree of exoplanets", he said, "somewhat analogous to the discovery that mammals and lizards are separate branches on the tree of life". The telescope has studied some 150,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation, a survey which NASA said is now complete.

The eighth catalogue is the most detailed released during the first four years of data gathering by Kepler. "So I'm really excited to see what people are going to do with this catalog".

The news comes during the Kepler Science Conference and NASA's Kepler exoplanet week, to celebrate the successes of these missions and the scientists who have made exoplanet discoveries possible. Of those, 30 are similar in size to Earth and orbiting in their star's habitable zone.

This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler's observations during the first four years of its primary mission. This turned into the K2 mission.

The presence of water is seen as a key factor for the existence of life. There will be presentations and panel discussions with some of the world's foremost scientists about planet-hunting and the search for other Earths. That number includes about 50 worlds that may be about the same size and temperature as Earth. That happens during a so-called "transit" - when a planet passes in front of its star.

For the final catalog, the team focused on teasing out Earth-sized planets around G-type stars like our sun. Researchers are now using the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if these planets had atmosphere. Scientists with the mission expect that Kepler's K2 mission will continue until sometime in 2018. "That's great", said Courtney Dressing, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the California Institute of Technology.

One of Kepler's other big surprises was a profusion of planets intermediate in size between Earth and Neptune.

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