NASA just discovered 1,200 new planets, nine of which may be Earth-like
Last year in a shocking act of foresight, Congress decided to give NASA more money for its budget than the space agency asked for. If the lawmakers suddenly realize what they’ve done and ask NASA to justify its expenses though, the agency can point to the incredible success of the Kepler Space Telescope and more or less say, “See? This is what happens when you let us get on with it.”
By any measure, Kepler has been an unparalleled success in its mission to search the galaxy for planets that could potentially be Earth-like. So far the telescope has discovered thousands of planets. Only a handful have been discovered in the “Goldilocks zone” – the region close enough to a star where water could possibly flow without boiling or freezing – but even finding one is a significant accomplishment.
With the most recent Kepler findings, announced yesterday by NASA, the number of potential Earth-like planets just jumped to 21, nearly double the number from before.
If it isn’t already clear, that is a huge deal.
The newest batch of planets identified by Kepler includes 4,302 potential planets. Of that number, 1,284 are considered to be planets with a 99-percent certainty, and 550 of those are likely rocky planets. Another 1,327 are probably planets, but with a lower percent of certainty. Of the confirmed planets, nine of the newly discovered planets are in the planetary sweet spot.
The discovery also helps to further confirm that there are likely more planets in the galaxy than stars. Prior to the Kepler mission, most thought that to be the case, but the discoveries made by the telescope are helping to prove it.
“Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. “This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe.”
In total, there have been roughly 5,000 planets discovered since we’ve had the means to look, more than 3,200 of which have been verified. Of those, 2,325 were discovered by Kepler since its launch in 2007. The telescope is currently focused on a patch of 150,000 stars, constantly looking for the telltale signs of a shadow crossing in front of the sun. Given the vastness of the region and the potential length of a planet’s orbit, finding even a handful of planets is remarkable. Finding thousands is the justification of a long, healthy budget.
“They say not to count our chickens before they’re hatched, but that’s exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet),” said Natalie Batalha, the Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets — a number that’s needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”
While Kepler has been an unqualified success, it will receive some help in 2018 when NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite launches and begins to monitor a patch of 200,000 stars. For now though, there’s enough data to keep us looking for years to come.