NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered 1284 new planets previously unknown to astronomy. This finding represents the largest number of planets ever discovered at the same time, and more than doubles the total number of planets discovered by the Kepler mission. Nine of the new planets orbit within habitable regions around their respective stars. These so-called ‘Goldilocks Zones’ (so named because they are not too hot and not too cold) are the area of orbit around a star in which a planet’s surface could potentially support liquid water. Due to the importance of liquid water in the development of life on Earth and in the Earth’s current biosphere, it is assumed to be an indicator of a planet’s potential habitability for extra-terrestrial life.
The Kepler mission began in 2009, with the launch of the Kepler telescope into space. The goal of the project is to determine how many Earth-sized planets reside in or near habitable zones, and to estimate the number of these planets within the Milky Way, the galaxy in which Earth resides.
The Kepler telescope works by observing the periodic ‘dimming’ of the light from a star, presumably caused by a planet moving across it during its orbit. Once a potential discovery is verified, Kepler makes an estimate of the planet’s surface temperature, considering the size and strength of the host star, and the distance between the star and the planet. This is an imperfect estimate, as Kepler is unable to detect planetary atmospheres, however it provides astronomers and planetary scientists with a rough portrait of the habitable zones of other solar systems, and is a valuable addition to planetary science.
[Clare Patterson –@clurrpatterson]