Today NASA’s Kepler mission announced the discovery of 26 new planets (above, green). The new worlds, comparable to the giant planets of our Solar System (blue), nearly double the number of planets previously discovered by the probe (red), but it’s probably only a small taste of what’s to come.
Kepler looks at 150,000 distant stars and searches for tiny changes in brightness as a planet passes by. So far, the probe has turned up 2,300 planet candidates. Confirming a planet is far more difficult, but Kepler has managed to verify the new worlds announced today by measuring slight changes in their orbits owing to the gravitational influence of other, nearby planets. NASA has also released a very cool video showing the different systems in action (below).
Kepler’s ultimate goal is to discover another earth orbiting a distant star. That goal is still some years off, but it’s already contributing quite a lot towards our understanding of exoplanetary systems. An abundance of mid-sized planets has forced astronomers to rethink their theories of planetary formation, and the mission’s precise measurements of star brightness has shown that some stars are far more turbulent than our Sun.
Credit: NASA Ames/D. Fabrycky, UC Santa Cruz/J. Steffen, Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics