06:22 GMT28 February 2020
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    NASA's Kepler mission has announced the discovery of more than 1,000 new planets, half of which could be rocky planets like Earth.

    An analysis of the Kepler space telescope’s observations during July 2015 has identified 4,302 potential planets, 1,284 of which have a probability of being a planet that is greater than 99 percent, NASA announced on Tuesday.

    Based on their size, nearly 550 of them could be rocky planets like Earth, and nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. 

    With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets are now known to inhabit this "Goldilocks Zone" around their respective stars.

    "They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet)," said Natalie Batalha, a Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

    Kepler's Small Habitable Zone Planets
    NASA Ames / N. Batalha and W. Stenzel
    Kepler's Small Habitable Zone Planets
    "This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets – a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds." 

    The analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques, bringing NASA's tally of verified exoplanets to 3,264.

    "Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, the agency's Astrophysics Division director.

    The Kepler telescope, named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, was launched in March 2009. It works by measuring the brightness of stars; whenever a planet passes in front of its parent star as viewed from the spacecraft, a tiny pulse or beat is produced.

    NASA's Kepler spacecraft is seen in an undated artist's rendering
    © REUTERS / NASA
    NASA's Kepler spacecraft is seen in an undated artist's rendering
    The repeated beats look like an EKG showing a heartbeat, and allow scientists to detect and verify the existence of Earth-size planets and learn about the orbit and size of the planet.

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    Tags:
    Kepler, exoplanets, Kepler Space Telescope, NASA, space
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