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NASA's ailing Kepler Observatory bags 5 more rocky planets


NASA's Kepler Observatory may be down but its clearly not out. Proof? Scientists announced yesterday at the 223rd annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society that new data from Kepler has pinpointed 5 probable rocky planets. The findings were presented by Geoff Marcy of the University of California Berkeley, who is among the pioneers of exoplanet research.

So, what of the new worlds?

The bad news is that the rocky planets, which are larger (and some denser) than Earth, orbit their stars too closely to in order to support life In addition to the rocky worlds, there are 11 other gaseous worlds, so-called mini-Neptunes, which range from about 1 to 4 Earth masses.

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 3,500 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 5% 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 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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