In what is a record-breaking find for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), its scientists have discovered 715 planets, some of which may harbour life.
With this discovery in the search for life outside of our planet, we now know of nearly 1,700 planets outside our solar system.
Perhaps most important from the 715 planets found is that four of these are believed to be in the area known as the ‘Goldilocks zone’, and are capable of having liquid bodies on their surface, one of the key incubators for life to form and exist.
All these worlds orbit 305 stars which revealed multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system, but 95pc of these newly discovered planets are smaller than Neptune.
The NASA team made the findings from the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009, with the specific goal of finding Earth-like planets that follow the gravitational pull of other stars.
In the four years since it has launched, the telescope has searched about 160,000 objects in its line of sight; a mere fraction of what could potentially be out there in the universe.
A planet ‘bonanza’
Planetary scientist Jack Lissauer co-led the research team, and he said these findings are a “bonanza” in scientific terms.
“Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates, but they were only candidate worlds. 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.”
The planet that has caught the most attention from NASA, however, is one designated as Kepler-296f.
From the findings, the planet orbits a star half the size and 5pc as bright as our sun, and is twice the size of Earth. Yet scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.