At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Dave Bowman’s final words were “My God – it’s full of stars!” But for NASA’s Kepler mission, it might be better to change the line to “My God – it’s full of planets!”
Since December 2009, the space observatory has discovered hundreds of worlds beyond our solar system. But in one fell swoop, the mission has enormously expanded our view of the Galaxy. NASA announced on Wednesday that the mission has discovered 715 new planets circling 305 stars.
More interesting is the fact that over 90% of the newly-discovered worlds are smaller than Neptune. That’s a change from the early days of the discovery of planets outside our solar system, which more frequently found planets the size of Jupiter or even larger.
The existence of a multitude of smaller worlds makes it more likely that somewhere nearby, there’s a habitable world the size of Earth.
“The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results,” NASA’s John Grunsfeld said in a statement. One reason for this discovery of multiple worlds is a new statistical technique that astronomers are using which enables them to identify and verify extrasolar planets much more quickly, rather than examine data star-by-star.
“Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds,” research Jack Lissauer said in a press release.
“We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.” Many of the new planets that these researchers have discovered are parts of solar systems like our own – multiple worlds circling the same sun.
Tantalizingly, at least four of the newly-identified planets are both similar in size to Earth and reside within the habitable zone of their stars, meaning that it’s likely their surface temperatures would allow liquid water to flow.
As researcher Jason Rowe said in the release, “The more we explore the more we find familiar traces of ourselves amongst the stars that remind us of home.” By Alex Knapp, Forbes;
About author: I write about the future of science, technology, and culture. I’ve been working as the Social Media Editor and a staff writer at Forbes since October 2011. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance writer and contributor here. On this blog, I focus on futurism, cutting edge technology, and breaking research.