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NASA Discovers More than 1,000 New Planets in Largest Finding Ever; How Many Are Habitable?

May 11, 2016 08:53 AM EDT

The National Aeronautics and Space Agency's (NASA) Kepler mission recently announced the discovery of more than 1,000 new planets in the single largest finding of planets ever.

The space agency's official statement said the mission has verified 1,284 planets, with nine planets in the so-called "habitable zone," opening up possibilities on the discovery of another Earth.

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters, said this recent finding doubles the number of confirmed planets discovered by Kepler.

The analysis came from the space telescope's July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which found 4,302 potential planets. While only 1,284 are considered to have a high probability of being a planet, the others require additional study on their status, as some may be other astrophysical phenomena.

The Kepler space telescope was launched in March 2009 as the first NASA mission to search for potentially habitable planets. For four years, it has monitored 150,000 stars in a single patch of sky, keeping its eye out for possible planets that can harbor life.

It looks out for planets by watching stars and looking out for any dimming, which happens when an object passes in front of its star.

With this largest discovery to date, almost 550 could be rocky planets like our Earth. What's more exciting is that nine of these discovered planets are in their Sun's habitable zones, where surface temperatures can make liquid water possible. These nine are now included in the 21 exoplanets that have been previously discovered.

Co-author and mission scientist Natalie Batalha said their work will help Kepler reach its full potential and aid in designing future missions to search for "living worlds."

The Kepler and the science community around it have truly been instrumental in explorations and discoveries in space. "This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe," said NASA Astrophysics Division director Paul Hertz.

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