Kepler space telescope discovers 461 new exoplanet candidates

Diagram showing the current number of Kepler exoplanetary candidates, listed by size. The numbers of candidates which are Earth-size and super-Earth-size have increased by 43% and 21% since the last update in 2012. Credit: NASA

The Kepler space telescope has added hundreds of more exoplanet candidates to its already long and ever-growing list, it was announced today. There is now a current total of 2,740 planetary candidates, orbiting 2,036 stars.

The number of planetary candidates has increased by 20% since the previous Kepler catalogue was published in February 2012.

Most exciting is the fact that the largest increase, by planet type, have been Earth-size and super-Earth-size candidates, the numbers of which which grew by 43% and 21% respectively. Basically, smaller rocky worlds are now being discovered in greater numbers than larger gas or ice giants.

Four of the new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on their surfaces.

As Kepler scientist Christopher Burke aptly puts it, “There is no better way to kickoff the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life bearing worlds.”

About 43% of the candidates are in multi-planet systems, like our own solar system.

According to said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, “The large number of multi-candidate systems being found by Kepler implies that a substantial fraction of exoplanets reside in flat multi-planet systems. This is consistent with what we know about our own planetary neighborhood.”

It should be noted that planetary candidates are those awaiting confimation. The number of confirmed planets found by Kepler so far now stands at 105. That number will continue to grow as well, as more candidates are confirmed, a process which requires subsequent observations over time.

It should also be noted that the current number of confirmed exoplanets from all space and ground telescopes, including Kepler, is 854!

The findings bring us yet closer to finding a planet in another solar system which is similar to Earth. As Steve Howell, a Kepler mission project scientist at Ames, notes: “The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits – orbital periods similar to Earth’s. It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when.”

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