This week, NASA 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 Wednesday thanks to NASA and the Kepler data. .
At the press conference announcing the planets, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Sara Seager said that “Kepler is the gift that keeps on giving.”
This remark perfectly describes Kepler's work.
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 over 3,600 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.
The best part: there may be hundreds of more planets buried in Kepler's data. The problem: there's simply too much data for scientists to comb through in any timely manner acting alone. In fact, there is such a backup of data that NASA is even posting it online so that amateurs can help professionals sift through the mountains upon mountains of data to find planets
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 and amateurs busy for years to come, a gift that will keep on giving for years to come..
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