Number of planets skyrockets

NASA scientists announce a new method that has helped verify more than 700 new planets

Scientists announced on Wednesday that a new method has let them uncover more planets than ever.

Scientists announced the discovery of a “bonanza” of new planets orbiting stars outside our solar system — otherwise known as exoplanets — using the Kepler telescope and a new planet-hunting technique that experts say will drive more discoveries for years to come.

The discovery of 715 planets announced by NASA on Wednesday include four in the “habitable zones” of 305 star systems, areas where the temperature is right for liquid water, a key component for life.

“This is the largest windfall of (exoplanets), not exoplanet candidates, that’s ever been announced at one time,” said Douglas Hudgins, a NASA astrophysicist, during a teleconference Wednesday.

The data increase the number of Earth-sized planets by 400 percent, and brings the number of confirmed planets to almost 1,700, up from about 1,000.  

Through the Kepler telescope, scientists say they are able to nearly double the number of confirmed exoplanets, creating a trove of data to dissect and analyze.  

“We are placing ourselves into the context of what the universe produces,” said Jason Rowe of the scientific institute Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in Mountain View, Calif.

The data show that there are many planets of a size not seen in Earth’s solar system, called mini-Neptunes, and that finding intrigues researchers because they don’t have a parallel nearby to observe.

“Small planets are extremely common in our galaxy. Nature wants to make small planets," said Sara Seager, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology planet scientist who was not involved in the research but participated in Wednesday’s teleconference.

The Kepler space telescope, which launched in 2009 and suffered a flaw last year that prevented the machine from stabilizing itself, delivered the massive trove of data that scientists analyzed to discover the new planets. They employed a new statistical method to calculate how many planets are orbiting a star to verify their findings.

“This new technique is built upon a lot of past work that has been vetted and validated by the community,” said Seager.

“Many, many, many of the discoveries are going to be verified or validated planets.”

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