Exoplanet discovery rate goes from a trickle to a flood

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The Kepler spacecraft NASA Today, NASA’s Kepler team has announced that it has developed a new technique to verify the existence of many of the planetary candidates in its back catalog. The technique, which relies on the presence of multiple planets in the system, has led to the single largest announcement of new planets in history: 715 of them, orbiting a total of 305 stars. Most of these are small, between the sizes of Earth and Neptune, and are tightly packed in the inner regions of the systems in which they reside, but four appear to be in the habitable zone. If you visit Kepler’s home page , you’ll see a count of confirmed planets in the upper right (it’s currently at 961). Hover over it, and you’ll see there are over 3,800 unconfirmed planetary candidates. Those candidates come from the method that Kepler uses to discover planets: watching for a mini-eclipse that causes a slight dimming of their host star’s light. A similar pattern can be caused by a dim star orbiting in the system (a configuration called an eclipsing binary system), which raises the prospect of false positives. In the past, this has generally involved multiple follow-up observations with a large telescope, which has held back the announcement of confirmed planets to a relative trickle. However, there have been a number of discoveries that have been based on Kepler data alone. These discoveries have come from multi-planet systems, where the planets gravitationally interacted, speeding up or slowing each other down. This activity creates regular variations in the timing and duration of the eclipses as the exoplanets transit between their host star and Earth. Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Exoplanet discovery rate goes from a trickle to a flood

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