NASA finds planets aplenty outside solar system

WASHINGTON — NASA’s planet-hunting telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life. An early report from a cosmic census indicates that relatively small planets and stable multi-planet systems are far more plentiful than previous searches showed.

NASA released new data Wednesday from its Kepler telescope on more than 1,000 possible new planets outside our solar system — more than doubling the count of what astronomers call exoplanets. They haven’t been confirmed as planets yet, but some astronomers estimate that 90 percent of what Kepler has found will eventually be verified.

Kepler, launched in 2009, has been orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, conducting a planet census and searching for Earth-like planets since last year. It has found there are more planets that are much smaller than Jupiter — the biggest planet in our solar system — than there are giant planets.

Some of these even approach Earth’s size. That means they are better potential candidates for life than the behemoths that are more easily spotted, astronomers say.

While Kepler hasn’t yet found planets that are as small as Earth, all the results are “pointing in the right direction,” said University of California Santa Cruz astronomer Jonathan Fortney, a Kepler researcher.

Yale University exoplanet expert Debra Fischer, who wasn’t part of the Kepler team but serves as an outside expert for NASA, said the new information “gives us a much firmer footing” in eventual hopes for worlds that could harbor life.

“I feel different today knowing these new Kepler results than I did a week ago,” Fischer said.

On the Net

NASA’s Kepler mission: www.nasa.gov/mission—pages/kepler/main/index.html

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