Kepler telescope catalogues hundreds of new alien worlds, some potentially habitable

Posted June 20, 2017

"The latest Kepler catalog of planet candidates was created using the most sophisticated analyses yet, yielding the most complete and reliable accounting of distant worlds to date". It's also the final catalog from the spacecraft's view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation. The 10 new exoplanets adds to the 49 nearly Earth-like exoplanets in habitable zones detected by Kepler, more than 30 of which have been verified.

In science, "Earth-like" worlds are loosely defined as terrestrial worlds that have a chemical composition that is similar to our own planet and orbit in a relatively young star's habitable zone (the "habitable zone" is defined as the orbit around a star where liquid water could theoretically exist on a planet's surface).

"This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy's most compelling questions - how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?" said Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute and lead author of the catalog, at the announcement.

10 of the new candidates are about the size of Earth and orbit in their star's habitable zones.

Detected in four separate transit candidates, each around 302 days apart, associated with a star that is slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun, KOI-7711 hasn't been verified as a confirmed exoplanet yet. If it is a planet, that Kepler data can be used to determine its mass, size, and orbital period, or how long it takes to go around the star. "Both results have significant implications for the search for life", NASA reports.

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To celebrate, NASA has launched "Kepler Exoplanet Week" from June 17 through June 23, with events scheduled across the Bay Area. As it trailed behind Earth's on its yearly trip around the sun, Kepler constantly watched more than 160,000 stars for any hint of dimming. 219 new planet candidates were added to the final tally of 4,034 candidates.

Since the Kepler mission began in 2009, the telescope has helped researchers identify thousands of exoplanet candidates, and more than 2,000 of those have turned out to be confirmed exoplanets. Scientists with the mission expect that Kepler's K2 mission will continue until sometime in 2018.

The Kepler catalog reveals that the rocky planets are often about 75 percent larger than Earth, and about around half of these planets end up accumulating the common gases helium and hydrogen, which "swells" their size, transforming them into Neptune-like planets. "Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree".

"The gap in radius is really interesting and comes from meticulous follow-up of the previously discovered Kepler planets, rather than the ones announced today", says astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University, who was not involved in the study.

Scientists were even able to estimate the size and density of the planets.