The Kepler Space Telescope has discovered 219 new so-called “exoplanets” – planets outside our Solar System – NASA announced today.
Of those, 10 are thought to be “rocky and raw” – like Earth.
They are within the so-called “habitable zone” of their star – meaning they could support life.
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The 10 new Earth-like planets are the right temperature for liquid water to pool on their rocky surface.
Liquid water is thought to be key to the existence of life.
Kepler, a telescope which is flying through space, has spotted a total of 4,034 possible exoplanets – including the 219 announced today – in its four-year mission so far.
Of these, 2,300 have been confirmed as planets – the others may be some other kind of celestial body.
Around 50 of the planets are a similar size to Earth and are in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” – a distance from their star that is not too hot and not too cold for water to be present.
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Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth.
“Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth.”
Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute, said: “This carefully-measured catalogue is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions: how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?”
Space boffins say the new data suggests most planets are a similar size to Earth or a similar size to Neptune – which is about four times bigger than Earth. Very few of the exoplanets are between those sizes.
It seems that nature commonly makes rocky planets up to about 75% bigger than Earth.
For reasons scientists don’t yet understand, about half of those planets take on a small amount of hydrogen and helium that dramatically swells their size, allowing them to “jump the gap” and join the population closer to Neptune’s size.
NASA is categorising the two “types” as “super-Earths” and “mini-Neptunes”.
Benjamin Fulton, doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, said: “We like to think of this study as classifying planets in the same way that biologists identify new species of animals.”