NASA researchers, combing through mountains upon mountains of data from the Kepler Observatory, have just confirmed the existence of 715 new planets, which is, by far, the largest single haul of confirmed planets at any single time. To date, there are at least (there are 5 different 'official' exoplanet lists) 1,500 confirmed exoplanets with half of that number being added just yesterday thanks to NASA and the Kepler data. .
So, what of the new worlds?
The bad news is that most of the planets orbit their stars too closely to in order to support life. The good news: about 94% of the planets found are the size of or are smaller than Neptune, meaning that small planets are not uncommon in the universe. The best news: there are 4 rocky planets that orbit within their stars' habitable zones, the not too hot or cold region where life as we know it can exist.
While certainly not proof of alien civilizations, this announcement confirms that Earth-like planets do exist at places where life can exist.
As for the star systems, all of the planets inhabit multi-planet systems, most of which resemble our solar system wherein planets orbit in nearly circular orbits at the same plane relative to each other, proving that orderly, multi-planet systems are, in fact, common in the universe.
In recent years, it is the search for rocky extrasolar planets in their parent stars' habitable zones that has been the focus for astronomers. Thanks to advances in technology, exemplified by Kepler, that allow for the measurement of stars' brightness to almost unimaginable sensitivities, this can now be done as these Earth-sized planets were simply impossible to detect with the older Doppler Shift technology that was used to find the first extrasolar planets, all of which were Jupiter-sized giants.
To date, Kepler has found almost 4,000 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 20% have been confirmed to exist but mission scientists estimate that, in time, over 90% of these potential planets will be confirmed as real. The interesting trend in these findings: Earth-like planets are being found at ever-increasing frequency and that smaller (Neptune and smaller-sized) planets are more numerous than Jupiter-like worlds. While certainly not being the fingerprint of an alien civilization, Kepler's discoveries are interesting in that it is now known that very inviting, Earth-like planets, can exist throughout the reaches of space.
In the end, no matter what happens with the ailing observatory itself, it will have a rich legacy of discovery that is sure to keep scientists busy for years to come.
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