New worlds galore: Kepler Space Telescope confirms 1,284 more exoplanets

Artist’s conception of the many different exoplanets that have been discovered by Kepler so far. Image Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel
Artist’s conception of the many different exoplanets that have been discovered by Kepler so far. Image Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel

For several years now the Kepler Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes, has been discovering an increasing number of exoplanets, with over 2,000 such confirmed worlds found so far (and nearly 5,000 candidates). Today, NASA announced that the Kepler mission has added 1,284 newly confirmed exoplanets to that list, vastly increasing the number of known planets orbiting other stars. This is the largest number of new planets ever announced at one time. The new results were announced during a NASA teleconference briefing.

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The Kepler discovery controversy: objects orbiting new star likely cometary fragments, not aliens

Are the unusual objects around KIC 8462852 a giant swarm of comets or something else? Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
Are the unusual objects around KIC 8462852 a giant swarm of comets or something else? Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

There has been a lot of discussion during the past several days regarding a discovery by the Kepler Space Telescope, which, according to some, may be the first evidence for advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, or perhaps just a weird but natural phenomenon instead.

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Kepler update: Earth’s ‘bigger and older cousin’ discovered orbiting distant star

Artist’s conception of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-sized exoplanet discovered orbiting in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
Artist’s conception of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-sized exoplanet discovered orbiting in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

One of the primary goals in the search for exoplanets is to, hopefully, find an Earth analog or “Earth twin,” an alien world similar to our own. That search is still ongoing, but getting closer – yesterday NASA announced a new exoplanetary discovery that could be described as “Earth’s bigger and older cousin” – Kepler-452b.

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New technique to study clouds on exoplanets developed by researchers at MIT

Artist’s conception of clouds on Kepler-7b. Image Credit: NASA (edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)
Artist’s conception of clouds on Kepler-7b. Image Credit: NASA (edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

While exoplanets are now being discovered by the thousands, it is still a painstaking process to determine any specific details about them, since they are so incredibly far away. However, astronomers have been devising new techniques to do just that, including one that makes it easier to analyze the property of clouds on some of these distant worlds.

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Kepler 2.0: how ailing space telescope could planet-hunt again

Artist’s illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Credit: NASA

There was a lot of disappointment when it was announced that the crippled Kepler Space Telescope would not be able to continue its search for exoplanets after a malfunction left it unable to stabilize enough to focus properly. There was some comfort in the knowledge that there was still a lot of its original data to go through, and that a few thousand planetary candidates had already been found. But now, it seems that Kepler’s assumed death may have been a bit premature.

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Billions of potentially Earth-like planets in our galaxy

Astronomers now estimate that about one in five sun-like stars in our galaxy has an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Credit: UC Berkeley
Astronomers now estimate that about one in five sun-like stars in our galaxy has an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Credit: UC Berkeley

Some exciting exoplanet news this week: based on the newest data from the Kepler space telescope, astronomers now estimate that there are billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy which are about the same size as Earth and orbit in the habitable zone of their stars, it was announced yesterday.

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Today’s weather forecast is patchy clouds – on exoplanet Kepler-7b

Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT
Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right).
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT

Patchy clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. That is the current weather forecast, not for anywhere on Earth, but for a much more distant world in another solar system. For the first time, astronomers have been able to map cloud patterns on such a far-away exoplanet, it was announced on September 30, 2013.

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Can Kepler be saved? Engineering team to attempt recovery of ailing space telescope

Artist's illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel
Artist’s illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

The Kepler space telescope has been nothing short of incredible, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets and showing just how common and diverse they really are (as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction). Recently, however, additional mechanical problems have started plaguing the mission, threatening to cut it short. The news during the past few weeks has been pessimistic, declaring that Kepler’s planet-hunting days are all but over. But there is still hope, as announced by the mission’s engineering team, that further testing later this month can help to resolve the situation.

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Three new possibly habitable ‘super-Earth’ planets discovered

Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth. Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech
Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth.
Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

There is some more exciting news from the Kepler space telescope mission – as announced in a NASA press briefing this morning, three more planets have been detected orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. Larger planets have been found already in this zone around various stars, but what makes this newest discovery so compelling is that these new planets are the smallest found so far in this zone, so-called “super-Earths.” Two of them may even be covered by oceans!

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