The Kepler team found that planets which are about 1.75 times the size of Earth and smaller tend to be rocky, while those two- to 3.5 times the size of Earth become gas-shrouded worlds like Neptune.
Fans of the Drake Equation can rejoice, because NASA just announced that the Kepler spacecraft, which has been scanning the stars to find more exoplanets, has discovered 1,284 new planets, which NASA calls "the single largest finding of planets to date".
"Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future Nasa missions to directly image another Earth".
For Kepler's first four years, it stared at a patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation. The 10 new exoplanets adds to the 49 nearly Earth-like exoplanets in habitable zones detected by Kepler, more than 30 of which have been verified.
"This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy's most compelling questions - how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?" said Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist and lead author of the latest study.
This artist rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows some of the 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and in the habitable zone of their star identified by NASA's Kepler space telescope. More than half (2,335) are verified as exoplanets. If it is a planet, that Kepler data can be used to determine its mass, size, and orbital period, or how long it takes to go around the star. K2, which has found over 100 different exoplanets so far, was started as a way to give the telescope a second life after Kepler suffered multiple mission-threatening technological setbacks.
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In comparison, our solar system looks like it has three planets in the habitable zone of the sun: Mars, Venus and Earth.
And, in a statement, Nasa said: "There are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler". "Maybe Kepler today is telling us indirectly. that we are not alone". This is certainly the week for exploring such ideas, however, during the Kepler Science Conference, which runs from June 19-23, at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
Seven of the 10 newfound Earth-size planets circle stars that are just like ours, not cool dwarf ones that require a planet be quite close to its star for the right temperature.
This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler's observations during the first four years of its primary mission.
So to fix this, the Kepler team simulated their own positive and false signals of planet transits and compared them to the actual data from the mission. Astronomers were at a loss to explain how such planets formed and whether there was a continuum between rocky terrestrial "super-Earths" and gassy "mini-Neptunes". He likened the discovery to realizing that mammals and reptiles are on separate branches of the evolutionary tree.
Even more remarkable than the sheer number of planets discovered is the method by which Kepler discovered them.