NASA’s ongoing Kepler mission to find Earth-like planets fit for human colonization has discovered a total of 461 new candidates, the agency announced today. The discoveries have collectively increased the Kepler catalog of planets by 20 percent since this time last year.
Kepler is a space observatory. Its telescope searches for Earth-like planet candidates by measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars. Brightness fluctuations often indicate a planet orbiting around the star in question. Once Kepler logs three such transits, the potential planet is identified and added to the catalog for further investigation.
In Feburary 2012, Kepler mission scientists had confirmed 33 of these candidates as bona fide planets. With the past year’s research, 105 planets have been identified and confirmed.
“The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits– orbital periods similar to Earth’s,” said Steve Howell, Kepler mission project scientist at Ames,” in a statement on the news.
“It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when.”
Interestingly, all the Kepler data is available to the public as an archive of exoplanets. The archive containts interactive tables, published light curves, images, spectra and parameters, and time-series data from surveys.
The Kepler mission has been active since March 2009. It was originally conceived as 3.5-year mission; however, the unique challenges of “big data” processing have collectively contributed to the mission’s extension into 2016.
Image credits: NASA Ames Research Center/W. Stenzel, Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech