The Kepler telescope has added several hundred new candidate exoplanets to its stable of 4034, including 10 that are near-Earth-size, in orbits that would allow liquid water at the surface.
When asked during the press conference how the team felt about Kepler's first mission coming to a close, Thompson explained that she sees it more as a new beginning.
"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, lead author of the catalog study.
"This number could have been very, very small, and I for one am ecstatic that we found 50 potentially habitable worlds orbiting nearby stars".
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A Kepler mission scientist said, for the first time, there is at least one planet that nearly matches the Earth.
The division now is between two categories: "super-Earths", or rocky planets about 1.5 times the size of our own, and "mini-Neptunes", gassy planets more than 2.5 times Earth's size.
With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. One of the potentially inhabitable planets, dubbed TRAPPIST-1E, is very similar in size to Earth and likely has very similar temperatures.
This latest batch of planetary discoveries marks the final step in Kepler's observation of the Cygnus constellation. In the mid-2020s, we have our sights on taking a picture of small planets like Earth with our Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Now, we know that exoplanets can be cold gas giants, hot Jupiters, ocean worlds, ice giants, lava worlds and rocky planets.
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The Kepler mission will end in October, but the team will leave data measurements for the scientific community as a way to pass the baton to future missions.
Kepler spots potential planets by looking for a dimming of a star's brightness due a planet crossing in front of it.
Until KOI-7711 is verified and earns an official Kepler planet name - a process that requires a different telescope (usually ground-based) to observe it transiting - this is all speculation. Each star will be observed for 30 days. There will be presentations and panel discussions with some of the world's foremost scientists about planet-hunting and the search for other Earths.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look at targets discovered by K2 in some detail, and it will be able to focus on at least 10 exoplanets in great detail.
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NASA said that the Spitzer, Hubble and Kepler will continue to conduct follow-up studies. "We can imagine the day where we actually take direct images of planets like the Earth in the habitable zone of sun-like stars".