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Telescope points to possible planets

An artist’s rendering provided by NASA shows a rocky planet called Kepler-10b. It is 1.4 times the size of Earth.


An artist’s rendering provided by NASA shows a rocky planet called Kepler-10b. It is 1.4 times the size of Earth.

An orbiting NASA telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life, including more than 50 potential planets that appear to be in the habitable zone.

In just a year of peering out at a small slice of the galaxy, the Kepler telescope has spotted 1,235 possible planets outside our solar system. Amazingly, 54 of them are seemingly in the zone that could be hospitable to life — that is, not too hot or too cold, Kepler chief scientist William Borucki said.

Fifty-four possibilities is "an enormous amount, an inconceivable amount," Borucki said. "It's amazing to see this huge number because up to now, we've had zero."

Before Kepler, scientists had confirmed the existence of more than 500 planets outside our solar system, which are known as exoplanets. Among the 1,235 new candidates, 68 are Earth-sized, 288 are super-Earth-sized (up to about 10 times the Earth's mass), 662 are Neptune-sized and 165 are around the size of Jupiter, the largest planet within our solar system, Borucki said. Nineteen are up to twice the size of Jupiter.

Borucki estimates 80 percent of the 1,235 newfound bodies will eventually be verified as planets. At least one other astronomer believes Kepler could be 90 percent accurate.

After that, it's another big step in proving that a confirmed planet has some of the basic conditions needed to support life, such as the proper size, composition, temperature and distance from its star. More advanced aspects of habitability such as specific atmospheric conditions and the presence of water and carbon require telescopes that aren't built yet.

Kepler astronomers revealed the possible planets in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. NASA announced other elements of Kepler's findings.

Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Telescope points to possible planets 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 9:31pm]
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