NASA telescope finds 10 more planets that could have life

NASA's Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new candidates, 10 of which 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.

This new data from the Kepler mission also suggest that within the "family tree" of exoplanets found, the smaller ones fall into two distinct sizes: Earth-like planets and super-Earths, and gaseous mini-Neptunes.

Even more remarkable than the sheer number of planets discovered is the method by which Kepler discovered them.

Exoplanets are planets that orbit a star outside of the solar system. This is certainly the week for exploring such ideas, however, during the Kepler Science Conference, which runs from June 19-23, at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Instead of directly spotting individual planets and identifying them with something like high-powered optics, Kepler watches for "transits". The telescope has studied some 150,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation, a survey which NASA said is now complete.

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The James Webb Space Telescope, however, is capable of observing large exoplanets and detecting starlight filtered through their atmosphere, which will enable scientists to determine the atmospheric composition of the planets and analyze them for the presence of gases that can create a biological ecosystem.

Below is a plot showing only the small subset of relatively Earth-sized planet candidates. Of those, about 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates have been detected, and 30 have been verified.

The Kepler spacecraft continues to make observations in new patches of sky in its extended mission, searching for planets and studying a variety of interesting astronomical objects, from distant star clusters to objects such as the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-size planets, closer to home.

"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", Dr. Mario Perez, a scientist on NASA's Kepler program, said in the press statement.

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KOI-7711, an unconfirmed exoplanet at this time, appears to be our best candidate for an Earth-like alien world. If it is confirmed, though, it may become the most Earth-like planet in the catalogue, so far.

Until KOI-7711 is verified and earns an official Kepler planet name - a process that requires a different telescope (usually ground-based) to observe it transiting - this is all speculation. Kepler's main mission ended in 2013 after the failure of two of its four wheels that control its orientation in space.

It has enough fuel to keep identifying candidates until summer 2018 and is helping bridge the gap between Kepler and TESS by identifying targets for the James Webb Space Telescope to observe.

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