Universe

NASA Just Confirmed the Discovery of 9 Potentially Habitable Exoplanets

May 10, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's rendition of Kepler spacecraft with distant solar system
Photo credit: NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel

And doubled the number of currently known exoplanets.

NASA has just announced the latest discoveries made by its planet-hunting mission, the Kepler Space Telescope.

Drum roll… NASA has just confirmed 1,284 new exoplanets. This is the most exoplanets ever announced at one time, and it more than doubles the number of currently known exoplanets.

Graph of discoveries of exoplanets by year

The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year over more than two decades of the exoplanet search. Photo credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton

All planets spotted by Kepler start out as candidate exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, but they require verification to determine if they are actually planets, and not an imposter, such as a small star. To verify exoplanets, researchers had to use an extensive and resource intensive follow-up using observations to validate each candidate one by one.

But NASA now has a new validation method. It is a new statistical validation technique that allows researchers to determine the probability that any given candidate is in fact a planet, without requiring any follow-up observations.

SEE ALSO: Astronomers Discover Closest Ever Potentially Habitable Planet

How? It uses two different kind s of simulations — both simulate the detailed shapes of the signals caused by planets and objects, such as a star disguised as a planet, and also simulates how many impostors are expected to be present in the Milky Way galaxy. By combining these two different kinds of information, scientists can score each candidate between zero and one, and any with a reliability greater than 99 percent can be called “validated exoplanets.”

Since Kepler launched, 12 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zone of their stars. However, today that number almost doubles to 21. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets, while the orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announced today.

Diagram of all the exoplanets discovered by Kepler in the habitable zones of their planets

Since Kepler's launch in 2009, 21 potentially habitable planets have been discovered shown above (orange=newly validated planets, blue=previously known planets). Photo credit: NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

Kepler was first launched in March 2009 back when scientists did not know how common planets were outside our solar system. But thanks to Kepler, the telescope revealed that almost all stars host a number of alien worlds. In fact, because of the data brought back by Kepler, astronomers believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.

So what’s next for Kepler? It will continue to make more astronomical observations, and hopefully spot even more potentially habitable exoplanets!

The research paper of these findings have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

You might also like: Kepler-452b: A Second Earth?

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