Kepler has finally opened up its first big treasure chest of exoplanet data since the telescope launched in March 2009. There are 306 planet candidates in the dataset, many of them Neptune sized, though as many as 50% could turn out to be false positives. But as the mission gets closer to discovering the first Earth-like alien world, the pressure, and secrecy, is building. As we reported previously, NASA has given Kepler an exclusive extension, until February, to follow up on 400 other candidates — the smallest, most Earth-like ones — instead of turning over the data, as was originally planned. The New York Times reports that members of the Kepler team have had to sign non-disclosure agreements. And according to NASA Watch, the NASA astrophysics division is prohibiting discussion of the new 306 candidate planets until they are confirmed, even though they are now out in the public; the NASA press release associated with the data dump makes no mention of the 306 new candidates.
And don’t forget about little CoRoT! The French mission, which, like Kepler, spots exoplanets when they transit in front of their parent stars, has found six new exoplanets. It’s a sign of the times when the discovery of “shruken Saturns” and “bloated Jupiters” doesn’t get much attention at all.