In 2013, the Kepler Space Telescope, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s most sophisticated planet hunter, malfunctioned, putting its mission in jeopardy. NASA is reprogramming and repurposing Kepler so that it can continue transmitting in a more limited capacity.
Meanwhile, NASA scientists are ecstatic about four years’ worth of information they have salvaged from the Kepler mission. After months of studying the data and images, NASA is confidently reporting that the population of planets that circle 305 relatively nearby stars has jumped by 715. This has tripled the number of known planets in the Milky Way.
Of these planets, 95 percent are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. Only four planets are within the habitable zone of their host sun, meaning they could contain liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it.
They’re also bunched close together, unlike the planets in Earth’s solar system. None of the planets looks like a place where humans might want to relocate, but scientists hope that studying these systems will provide insights into the formation of Earth.
Scientists are comfortable with the hypothesis that planets are ubiquitous. Perhaps Earth isn’t as unique as its inhabitants once thought.