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NASA Reveals Hundreds of New Worlds (Including Potentially Habitable Ones)

Jun 23, 2017 11:38 AM EDT
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More exoplanets in the distance? A new Kepler data set reveals hundreds of planet candidates with several in habitable zones.
(Photo : NASA/NASA via Getty Images)

A staggering number of planets just entered the fray on the race for the next Earth. In NASA's new catalog of exoplanet candidates, 10 was identified as potentially habitable.

According to a report from NASA, the agency unveiled the new data during a news conference at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, releasing a mission catalog of planet candidates consisting of 219 individual potential exoplanets. More significantly, 10 of these are near-Earth size and could be habitable.

This latest release marks the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets from Kepler's data. It brings the total of Kepler-identified planet candidates to 4,035. Out of this total number, 2,335 have been confirmed as exoplanets. Meanwhile 30 out of the 50 habitable exoplanets have been verified.

"The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs - planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth," said Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth."

Aside from identifying an impressive amount of potential exoplanets, the Kepler data suggested that small planets come in two distinct size groupings: rocky Earth-like planets and super-Earths, and then the gaseous mini-Neptunes. This discovery could impact the search for life significantly.

Leading a study that used the Kepler data to identify these two separate classifications, Benjamin Fulton explained that they approached the study similar to the way biologists identify new animal species.

"Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree," Fulton, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, pointed out.

It's only one of the many contributions on the way from this Kepler data set. Chances are, astronomers will be continuing to scour the information going forward.

"I expect that the scientific community will continue to scour the data set for decades, finding new planets and new features of the stars themselves," Kepler and K2 mission manager Charlie Sobeck told Popular Science. "So you can expect to see future exoplanet announcements based on the data, but probably not from the mission itself."

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