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NASA's biggest-ever batch of new planets includes 9 in the habitable zone

Data from the Kepler space telescope has helped identify over a thousand new exoplanets, including nine that might be right for hosting life.

An artist's conception of some of Kepler's big exoplanet finds.
NASA/W. Stenzel

NASA announced on Tuesday its biggest-ever batch of newly discovered and confirmed planets beyond our solar system, including nine new worlds that could be something like Earth.

The latest analysis of data from the Kepler Space Telescope has produced 1,284 newly validated exoplanets and 1,327 objects that are more likely than not to be planets orbiting distant stars.

"This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler," Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA headquarters, said in a statement. "This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth."

Nine of the validated planets are rocky, Earth-like worlds that are also in the habitable zone of stars where temperatures may be right for liquid water to be able to pool, potentially supporting life.

Kepler mission scientist Natalie Batalha told reporters on a conference call that she is "especially intrigued" by a few of the new "Goldilocks zone" planets, including Kepler-1638b and Kepler-1229b, which appear to be either just the right size to be comparable to Earth or about the right distance from their star to receive the proper amount of heat (not too hot, not too cold, but just right, as the fairy tale has it).

This chart shows the new habitable zone planets in comparison to previously discovered exoplanets and solar system planets.

NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

The megahaul of planets comes in part because of a new statistical method of validating exoplanet candidates. Previously, confirming that an exoplanet candidate was actually a world and not a star or other false positive was a time and resource intensive process often requiring secondary observations from other powerful and highly in-demand telescopes.

A paper (PDF) on the new technique and how it helped identify the new planets was published Tuesday in The Astrophysical Journal.

Kepler is on its last legs as space telescopes go, and NASA also took the opportunity to mention its successors, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will launch in 2018 and could finally provide evidence of life beyond our solar system.