Planets aplenty: Kepler sheds light on hundreds of other worlds

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In 2013, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, the space agency’s most sophisticated planet hunter, malfunctioned, putting its mission in jeopardy. NASA is now in the midst of reprogramming Kepler and re-purposing it so that it can continue transmitting in a more limited capacity.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists haven’t been sitting around idly singing the blues. They’re ecstatic about four years’ worth of information that has been salvaged from the Kepler mission. After many months of studying the data and images using a variety of interpretive techniques, NASA is confidently reporting that the population of planets circling 305 relatively nearby stars has jumped by 715. In one fell swoop, this has tripled the number of known planets in the Milky Way.

Our planetary neighbors are an interesting bunch, too. Ninety-five percent of them are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. Only four of the planets are within the habitable zone of their host sun, meaning they could contain liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it.

They’re also bunched close together like balls on a pool table, which is unlike the planets in Earth’s solar system. None of these planets look like places where humans might want to relocate someday. Scientists hope that studying these systems will give them insights into the formation of Earth.

Because NASA hasn’t had to deal with new data from Kepler since last year, the agency has had time to sift through the information it already gathered. Thank goodness for that.

Scientists are now comfortable with the hypothesis that planets are ubiquitous, since so many have been found in a relatively tiny sliver of space. There could be billions in the Milky Way alone. Perhaps Earth isn’t as unique as its inhabitants once thought.


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