Monday, 14 February 2011 13:16
NASA's Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-sized planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.
The habitable zone is a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, according to the JPL.
Of the 54 new potential planets found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized, while the remaining 49 candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter, said the JPL, headquartered in Pasadena, Los Angeles.
Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11, the JPL said in a press release.
This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside the solar system, said the JPL.
Scientists will conduct follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets, said the release.
The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter.
"In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today's reality," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
"These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA's science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos."
The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday.
The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009, of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler's field of view, which covers approximately one four-hundredth of the sky.
"The fact that we've found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy," said the mission's science principal investigator William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
"We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water." (PNA/Xinhua)
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