NASA has announced a whole new world of whole new worlds revealed in data from the now crippled planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft. In a press conference on Wednesday, the Kepler team said it has verified the existence of 715 previously unconfirmed planets circling 305 other stars.
This is the biggest single haul of verified planets ever culled from Kepler data, bringing the total number of confirmed planets beyond our solar system to just under 1,700. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that 95 percent of these newly discovered planets are smaller than Neptune, making them relatively the same size as Earth in a galactic sense -- Neptune is only four times the size of Earth, whereas Jupiter is over 10 times larger than our home planet (in terms of circumference).
Additionally, four of the new planets are even closer to the size of Earth (less than 2.5 times our size) and also circle their sun in its habitable zone where conditions for liquid water and perhaps life could be possible.
This new list of planets doesn't actually come from new observations made by Kepler, but instead by going back to the first two years of the mission. NASA analyzed data collected during observations made from May 2009 to March 2011 of stars that appear to be circled by multiple exoplanet candidates and identified patterns for several planets orbiting a single star.
"Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates -- but they were only candidate worlds," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "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."
Part of the reason it's possible to observe distant planets this way is that orbits in multiple-planet systems are flat and circular, like tree rings on the two-dimensional cross-section of a pine. If the planets orbited to the left or right and above or below each other like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, it would be much more difficult to spot these planets.
This is likely just the beginning of a coming avalanche of new planet discoveries, as there is another two more years of Kepler data waiting to be analyzed in this new fashion. New advanced telescopes are also planned for places like Chile and Hawaii's Mauna Kea, as well as the coming successor to the Hubble space telescope, the next-generation Webb telescope.
Looks like it could be time to start brushing up on your starship piloting skills a little sooner than we might have guessed.