The US space agency said Thursday its Kepler space telescope mission has confirmed 26 new planets outside our solar system, all of them orbiting too close to their host stars to sustain life.
Scattered across 11 planetary systems, their temperatures would be too hot for survival, as they all circle their stars closer than Venus, the second planet from the Sun, which has a surface temperature of 464 Celsius (867 F).
But NASA scientists were still pleased with the findings, which nearly double the number of confirmed planets that Kepler has found since 2009.
"Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA headquarters.
"Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates,” he added.
"This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits."
The discoveries are described in four different papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, NASA said in a statement.
Kepler is NASA’s first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting stars similar to our Sun.
It launched in March 2009, equipped with the largest camera ever sent into space — a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices — and is expected to continue its science operations until at least November 2012.
In December last year, NASA announced Kepler had confirmed its first-ever planet in a habitable zone outside our solar system, Kepler 22b, though it remained unclear whether the surface was rocky or gaseous.
Such planets have the right distance from their star to support water, plus a suitable temperature and atmosphere to support life.
Spinning around its star some 600 light years away, Kepler 22b is 2.4 times the size of the Earth and orbits its Sun-like star every 290 days.
The 26 planets that Kepler confirmed on Thursday orbit their stars between every six and 143 days.
Alright just so you guys can read them all at once and REALIZE HOW FRIGGIN’ EXCITING THIS IS (these are all tweets tweeted by SLS, on the lecture that Todd May, SLS Program Manager and Mark Kirasich, Orion Deputy Program Manager for Pass the Torch gave today:)
May: We have a lot of existing technologies that will be used on the Space Launch System. May: SLS will carry 154,000 - 286,000 pounds of payload. May: SLS will have the power of 160,000 Corvette engines. May: The ultimate destination we dream about is Mars. Kirasich: We’re building the first human spacecraft to go beyond low-Earth orbit. Kirasich: Orion will carry a crew of four. The heat shield can withstand temps up to 6000 degrees F, nearly half as hot as the sun’s surface. Kirasich: Orion is shrouded by the Launch Abort System to protect astronauts. Kirasich: Orion test articles have undergone flight testing with drop tests @ Langley and parachute testing in Arizona. Kirasich: Orion’s Exploration Test Flight 1 will take place in 2014. Kirasich: Where are we going? Lagrange points, asteroids, moon and Mars.
A glimpse beyond our solar system reveals the neighborhood just outside the sun’s influence is different and stranger than expected, scientists reported Tuesday.
One oddity is the amount of oxygen. There are more oxygen atoms floating freely in the solar system than in the immediate interstellar space, or the vast region between stars.
Scientists were unsure why, but they said it’s possible some of the life-supporting element could be hidden in dust or ice.
"We discovered this big puzzle — that the matter just outside of our solar system doesn’t look like the material inside," said David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
The discovery came from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft, which launched in 2008 to study the chaotic boundary where the solar wind from the sun clashes with cold gases from interstellar space.
Circling 200,000 miles above Earth, the Ibex spacecraft spots particles streaming into the solar system. A protective bubble surrounding around the sun and planets prevents dangerous cosmic radiation from seeping through, but neutral particles can pass freely, allowing Ibex to map their distribution.
The presence of less oxygen outside the solar system should not have any bearing on the search for Earth-like planets, scientists involved in the exoplanet hunt said.
There’s plenty of oxygen in all the stars in the galaxy and in the material out of which stars and planets form, Geoff Marcy of University of California, Berkeley said in an email.
While Ibex probes the edge of the solar system from Earth orbit, NASA’s long-running, nuclear-powered twin Voyager spacecraft are at the fringes. Launched in 1977, the spacecraft have been exploring the solar system boundary since 2004.
Scientists have said it’ll be months or years before Voyager 1 exits the solar system and becomes the first manmade probe to cross into interstellar space.
NASA released footage Wednesday from one of the agency’s twin GRAIL lunar probes, showing the rugged far side of the moon in a time lapse video from a camera built to help educate and inspire U.S. middle school students.