Call it the $600 million gift that just keeps giving. NASA announced Wednesday the crippled Kepler Space Telescope put in some serious work, making the largest exoplanetary discovery ever.
The space agency said the Kepler team discovered 715 new planets orbiting stars other than our very own sun. Ninety-five percent of the planets are smaller than Neptune and just four orbit in their sun's "Goldilocks Zone." (Via NASA)
A statement posted to NASA's website read, "This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system."
NASA scientists said Kepler left them with an "oceanful" of homework when it ceased regular operations last year. According to Space.com, the newly-discovered planets came just from Kepler's first half of its time on the job, so there could soon be another massive haul of planets.
Ars Technica reports the exoplanet discoveries went from a trickle to a flood not because of Kepler's no-quit attitude, but because of a new technique.
The research team calls the technique verification through multiplicity. Before, Kepler observed planetary candidates orbiting stars. Those candidates would later be confirmed as planets after thorough follow-up observations.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "The new method ... relies on the idea that planets seem to cluster in systems with other planets, rather like our own."
One NASA researcher compared that to observing lions and lionesses in an intergalactic savannah. If two or more lionesses (or planet candidates) are spotted together, they can be reliably identified as being with the same lion (or parent star). (Via BBC)
NASA launched Kepler in 2009 with the mission of finding planets much like our own. Although Kepler has made good on that promise, researchers hope the telescope will continue searching for celestial objects.
Kepler has helped discover 961 exoplanets to date. The studies detailing the discovery of the hundreds of new worlds will be published in The Astrophysical Journal March 10.