Say Hello To Earth 2.0! Historic Kepler Discovery Suggests We Are Not Alone

An artist's impression of Kepler 452b

photo credit: This artist’s impression of Kepler 452b shows how its surface might look, complete with water and active volcanoes. SETI Institute/Danielle Futselaar.

Remember the name Kepler 452b. Because in our search to discover if we are alone in this vast and fascinating universe, a sole life-harboring world among countless dead and uninhabitable planets, we may finally have a true candidate for Earth 2.0.

For the first time, scientists have found what appears to be a rocky world orbiting a Sun-like star at almost exactly the same distance that Earth orbits our own Sun. While other potentially habitable planets have been found before, this is the first that could plausibly be another Earth. This might be the real deal, people.

Kepler 452b, found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, is located 1,400 light-years from us. It orbits a star that is 4% more massive and 10% brighter than our Sun. The planet itself is 1.6 times the size of Earth – making it a super-Earth – but the scientists are fairly sure that it is a rocky world, owing to its size and the type of star it orbits.

Its orbit, 384.84 Earth days and 5% more distant than our planet is from the Sun, places it right in its star’s habitable zone, where it is not too hot or cold for liquid water to form: the same region Earth is in around the Sun. This is not the first Earth-sized planet found in a habitable zone; last year, the world was abuzz with the discovery of Kepler 186f, more similar in size to Earth. But that planet orbited a red dwarf star, smaller and cooler than the Sun. Kepler 452b, excitingly, orbits almost an exact clone of the Sun.

“Sun-like stars are people’s favorites, because we know of one circumstance [Earth] where that paid off [for life],” Seth Shostak, the Director of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which was involved in the planet discovery, told IFLScience.

Shostak revealed to IFLScience that, such was the potential habitability of this world, SETI was already studying it to find out if there were any signs of life coming from it, albeit so far to no avail. “We have actually started looking at this with the Allen Telescope Array to check it for obvious signals of artificial origin,” he said. “We haven’t looked over all the frequencies yet, but if there are any aliens on Kepler 452b they are being very coy.”

 

Shown is an artist’s impression of Earth compared to Kepler 452b. NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.

Although the mass of the planet can’t be directly determined yet, the scientists think it may be about five times that of Earth based on models. A rocky planet of this size and mass would likely still have active volcanism on the surface.

However, it should be noted that the star it orbits is 1.5 billion years older than our Sun. On the one hand, this increased energy from its star means that any oceans on its surface are likely being evaporated, lowering its chance of being habitable. On the other hand, this planet offers a fascinating opportunity to see what might become of Earth in the future.

“If Kepler 452b is indeed a rocky planet, its location vis-a-vis its star could mean that it is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history,” Doug Caldwell, a SETI Institute scientist working on the Kepler mission, said in a statement. “Kepler 452b could be experiencing now what the Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now, as the Sun ages and grows brighter.”

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This new planet joins others such as Kepler 186f, illustrated, as potentially Earth-like worlds. NASA Ames/SETI/JPL-Caltech.

Kepler 452b was found in a new catalog of 500 exoplanet candidates from four years of Kepler data. 12 of these are less than twice Earth’s diameter and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone, but Kepler 452b was the first to be confirmed as a planet. It could therefore be just one of many Earth 2.0s that are on the cusp of being announced.

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“Kepler 452b takes us one step closer to understanding how many habitable planets are out there,” said Joseph Twicken, also of the SETI Institute and the lead scientific programmer for the Kepler mission, in a statement.

While Kepler 452b ticks almost all of the boxes for being an Earth twin, there is one that it doesn’t – its size, which is 60% greater than Earth. Thus, while NASA is heralding it as the best candidate for Earth 2.0 so far, the hunt will go on for even more Earth-like planets.

NASA’s Kepler telescope, artist’s impression shown, was launched in 2009. NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

Actually finding life on these planets is more difficult. Although upcoming telescopes like theJames Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be designed to study the atmospheres of exoplanets and search for signs of habitability, the range for doing this will be just tens of light-years from Earth, said Shostak. Kepler 452b, at 1,400 light-years away, is too far to be comprehensively studied at the moment.

But one thing is for sure – the chances of us being alone in this universe are looking increasingly slim. Whether it’s Kepler 452b or Kepler 186f or some other undiscovered planet, somewhere out there, there must be a world with life waiting for us to find it.

“Kepler 452b is one small step in answering the question [of are we alone] today,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a press conference.

Does Nibiru – Planet X really exist?

There are countless articles on the internet talking about this mysterious planet, some of these refer to it as possible ‘murderer’ of Earth. All kinds of dreadful gravitational phenomena are connected with Nibiru and some even argue that Planet X or Nibiru poses a threat to Earth, and that one day it will collide against our planet. Science argues that it might exist, but they just haven seen it yet. Mythologically speaking, Nibiru is present in many ancient Sumerian writing.

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Due to the large number of natural disasters that have happened on our planet in the recent years, many people claim that it is due to the approach of Nibiru, aka The Twelfth Planet or Planet X and many researchers warn of a global catastrophe. Ufologists believe that astronomers and scientists are monitoring Nibiru although this information is kept hidden from the public as many other subjects.

There are many ufologists who suspect that agencies like NASA, are searching in the background for the ancient planet Nibiru, home to the annunaki. Media reports in Russia point toward certain people predicting that this mysterious planet is approaching Earth, and that the consequences of this encounter could be catastrophic bringing upon our planet many disasters including earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires and meteor showers among other things. But does this planet actually exist?

In 1976, the late Zecharia Sitchin raised a controversy with the publication of his book “The Twelfth Planet”. In this and subsequent books, Sitchin presented his translations of ancient Sumerian texts which tell an incredible story regarding the origins of mankind on Earth, stories that are completely different to those that most of us learned in school.

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According to the ancient cuneiform texts, which are believed to be some of the oldest writings known to date, go back at least 6,000 years. These writings explain the history of a race of beings called the Anunnaki. The Anunnaki came to Earth from a planet in our solar system which is called Nibiru. Sadly, many people have never heard of it, because according to mainstream science the planet called Nibiru does not exist. However, according to Sitchin, the presence of Nibiru is very important for the past and future of humanity.

The orbit of Nibiru around the sun is believed to be extremely elliptical, and according to text, it is located far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Bribe takes around 3600 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. Nibiru is believed to be the home planet of the Anunnaki. The approach of Nibiru towards the planets of our solar system might pose a huge threat given its gravitational characteristics.

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Astronomers today suggest that there is in fact a planet called Planet X, located beyond the orbit of Pluto, a planet that explains the anomalies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, the New York times even talked about in 1982:

Something out there beyond the farthest reaches of the known solar system seems to be tugging at Uranus and Neptune. Some gravitational force keeps perturbing the two giant planets, causing irregularities in their orbits. The force suggests a presence far away and unseen, a large object that may be the long- sought Planet X. … The last time a serious search of the skies was made it led to the discovery in 1930 of Pluto, the ninth planet.

NASA just announced it’ll be visiting this beautiful moon for the first time

The hunt for extraterrestrial life just grew a little hotter.

On Monday, during his State of NASA speech, administrator Charles Bolden announced that NASA would be selecting projects to accompany a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Floating in space about 390 million miles from earth, Europa is a remote ice ball that harbors a massive ocean underneath its surface.

So massive, in fact, that scientists suspect Europa could have as much as two to three times more liquid water than Earth does.

Judging from the abundance of life thriving in Earth’s oceans, where there’s liquid water, there’s the potential for life.

Not only that, Europa is absolutely gorgeous:

EuropaNASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Europa is about 1,900 miles in diameter — slightly smaller than our moon. The brown veins that give the moon it’s iconic beauty are still a mystery, but the leading theory is that they show where Europa’s crust cracked open, letting warmer, dirtier water seep through and then freeze.

Jupiter’s strong gravitational tug on the tiny moon generates tidal forces that stretch the entire surface — similar to how the Moon’s gravity tugs the water in Earth’s oceans, creating tides. The stretching then cracks the crust, letting water deep beneath the surface to seep through.

But that’s not the only impact the gas giant has on its moon. As NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand explains in a video about Europa:

Europa has liquid water because the moon is orbiting Jupiter, and the tidal tug and pull causes Europa to flex up and down — all that tidal energy turns into friction and heat that helps maintain this liquid water ocean beneath an icy shell.

europaNASA

Below is a close-up of the circular impact crater in the southern hemisphere in the image above. Called Pwyll, the impact crater is a relatively new feature on the surface of Europa, and it is also compelling evidence of the enormous ocean sloshing underneath the surface.

Scientists suspect that when the impactor hit, it splattered fresh, fine water ice particles everywhere that now show up as the bright-white arms adorning the moon’s face around the darker crater. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft — the only probe to fly by Europa more than once — took the image below in 1998 showing the darker crater, which is about 16 miles in diameter.

europaNASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The impact crater’s arms reach far across the surface. Even 620 miles north of the crater you can see evidence of the white streaks in the awesome close-up shot below.

The white and blue colors are the residual ice particles from the blast. Galileo snapped this photo of this region, which is 44 miles wide by 19 miles long, in 1996.

europaNASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Although Galileo took the most detailed images of Europa we have, astronomers still don’t know exactly how much liquid water there is or if life hides underneath the moon’s icy shell. That is why, just last year, NASA issued a Request for Information to the scientific community to offer up ideas on the best, economically viable approach to study this amazing moon.

Now, it looks as if some of those ideas might have paid off as scientists look forward to learning more about the future mission to Europa this spring.

According to NASA the mission should complete the following tasks:

  • Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  • Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  • Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  • Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  • Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

Check out a video of the State of NASA address announced on Monday:

 

NASA Launches ‘Flying Saucer’ to Test Mars Landing Tech (Video)

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Nearby Exoplanet Is Best Candidate For Supporting Life

photo credit: Artistic representation of the potentially habitable Super-Earth Gliese 832 c against a stellar nebula background. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo, NASA Hubble, Stellarium

Finding new exoplanets is always awesome, but discovering exoplanets within the star’s habitable zone are exponentially more exciting. A team led by Robert Wittenmyer of the University of New South Wales has announced the discovery of the Super-Earth Gliese 832 c, which could very well turn out to be the best candidate for extraterrestrial life discovered to date. It’s also fairly close, cosmologically speaking, which adds to the intrigue. The team’s paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, but has been made available online in an open access format on arXiv.org.

Gliese 832 is a red dwarf star that is located 16.1 light-years away in the constellation Grus. Astronomers discovered a Jupiter analog orbiting the star back in 2009, but its orbit takes nine years to complete; far beyond the star’s habitable zone. Gliese 832 c looks much more promising. Though only two planets in the system are known, it appears to be organized quite similarly to our own solar system.

The planet is about 5.4 times more massive than Earth and has an Earth Similarity Index (ESI) of 0.81, which compares an exoplanet’s radius, escape velocity, surface temperature, and density to Earth. Other exoplanets with similar ESI values include Gliese 667 Cc (ESI 0.84, 22 light-years away) and Kepler-62e (ESI 0.83, 1,200 light-years away). ESI does not account for the planet’s potential habitability, which makes Gliese 832 c a little more of a priority for further analysis.

Gliese 832 c has an orbital period of only 36 days. While this does seem fairly short by our standards, the host star is much smaller and cooler than our Sun. This results in Gliese 832 c getting the same amount of solar energy as Earth. One aspect of Gliese 832 c that could make or break its likelihood of supporting life is its atmosphere. Researchers aren’t certain about the atmosphere’s composition or density. A dense atmosphere would make the planet much too hot for life, and Gliese 832 c would be more like a Super-Venus than Super-Earth. If the atmosphere is not quite as dense, it could have weather patterns somewhat similar to Earth, albeit with greater seasonal variations.

New “Godzilla Planet” Is 17 Times Heavier Than Earth

photo credit: The newly discovered ‘mega-Earth’ Kepler-10c dominates the foreground in this artist’s conception. Its sibling, the lava world Kepler-10b, is in the background. Both orbit a sunlike star / David A. Aguilar (CfA)

 

Among the haul of hundreds of new planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope, many have qualified as super-Earths — worlds that are several times larger than Earth, are rocky like our own, and reside in the habitable zones of their stars. But never before had scientists detected a world like Kepler-10c, a “mega-Earth” that looks a lot like home but is 17 times heavier than our planet.

When Kepler first spied this new planet, astronomers measured its diameter to be 29,000 kilometers, or about 2.3 times larger than Earth’s. That would have been remarkable, but not recording-setting. However, when scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) looked at Kepler-10c using the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands, they measured the planet’s mass and found it to be so heavy that it must be made of rocks and other dense materials.

Kepler-10c orbits a star similar to the Sun, located about 560 light years from here. It completes an orbit once every 45 days. And this new finding annouced today about its mass could have profound impacts on the search for life out there among the stars.

Scientists would have thought that any planet as heavy as Kepler-10c would be a gaseous world such as Jupiter and Saturn. Indeed, many of the first exoplanets to be discovered were “hot Jupiters” — gas giants located close to their stars. But life as we know it needs to live on a hard, rocky planet or moon. The discovery of such a gigantic rocky world opens up the possibility of many more potentially habitable planets throughout the galaxy.

Furthermore, new research proposes a link between how long it takes for a planet to orbit its star and how large a rocky planet can grow. That would suggest rocky planets can be bigger the farther you get from the star. If this correlation is true, it would mean that astronomers will find even more mega-Earths as they search for exoplanets with longer orbital periods. (Many of the worlds newly discovered by Kepler are relatively close to their stars.)

This new mega-Earth also means that astronomers could look to very old stars for potentially habitable planets. Kepler-10c orbits a star that formed just 3 billion years after the Big Bang, and scientists had thought it make taken the first few billion years of the universe’s existence just for exploding stars to form enough heavy elements for rocky planets to form.

“Finding Kepler-10c tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought. And if you can make rocks, you can make life,” lead researcher Dimitar Sasselov says in a press release.

The work was presented today at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Boston.

[Via Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]

Image: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Read more at http://www.iflscience.com/space/new-godzilla-planet-17-times-heavier-earth#JAhO7XWSpkrz7Eg8.99

Found! First Earth-Size Planet That Could Support Life

For the first time, scientists have discovered an Earth-size alien planet in the habitable zone of its host star, an “Earth cousin” that just might have liquid water and the right conditions for life.

 

This artist illustration shows what it might be like to stand on the surface of the planet Kepler-186f, the first-ever Earth-size planet to be found in the habitable zone of its star.

This artist illustration shows what it might be like to stand on the surface of the planet Kepler-186f, the first-ever Earth-size planet to be found in the habitable zone of its star. Credit: Danielle Futselaar 

The newfound planet, called Kepler-186f, was first spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and circles a dim red dwarf star about 490 light-years from Earth. While the host star is dimmer than Earth’s sun and the planet is slightly bigger than Earth, the positioning of the alien world coupled with its size suggests that Kepler-186f could have water on its surface, scientists say. You can learn more about the amazing alien planet find in a videoproduced by Space.com. “One of the things we’ve been looking for is maybe an Earth twin, which is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star,” Tom Barclay, Kepler scientist and co-author of the new exoplanet research, told Space.com. “This [Kepler-186f] is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a cooler star. So, while it’s not an Earth twin, it is perhaps an Earth cousin. It has similar characteristics, but a different parent.”

This artist illustration shows the planet Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size alien planet discovered in the habitable zone of its star.

This artist illustration shows the planet Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size alien planet discovered in the habitable zone of its star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech


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The rocky alien planet Kepler 186f is an Earth-size world that could have liquid water on its surface, and possibly even life. It orbits a star 490 light-years away.See the full details of alien planet Kepler-186f in this Space.com infographic. Credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

Potentially habitable planet

Scientists think that Kepler-186f — the outermost of five planets found to be orbiting the star Kepler-186 — orbits at a distance of 32.5 million miles (52.4 million kilometers), theoretically within the habitable zone for a red dwarf. Earth orbits the sun from an average distance of about 93 million miles (150 million km), but the sun is larger and brighter than the Kepler-186 star, meaning that the sun’s habitable zone begins farther out from the star by comparison to Kepler-186. “This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” Elisa Quintana, of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center and the lead author of a new study detailing the findings, said in a statement. Other planets of various sizes have been found in the habitable zones of their stars. However, Kepler-186f is the first alien planet this close to Earth in size found orbiting in that potentially life-supporting area of an extrasolar system, according to exoplanet scientists. ‘An historic discovery’ “This is an historic discovery of the first truly Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone around its star,” Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is unaffiliated with the research, told Space.com via email. “This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock-solid. The planet itself may not be, but I’d bet my house on it. In any case, it’s a gem.” The newly discovered planet measures about 1.1 Earth radii, making it slightly larger than Earth, but researchers still think the alien world may be rocky like Earth. Researchers still aren’t sure what Kepler-186f’s atmosphere is made of, a key element that could help scientists understand if the planet is hospitable to life.  [Kepler-186f: Earth-Size World Could Support Oceans, Maybe Life (Infographic)] “What we’ve learned, just over the past few years, is that there is a definite transition which occurs around about 1.5 Earth radii,” Quintana said in a statement. “What happens there is that for radii between 1.5 and 2 Earth radii, the planet becomes massive enough that it starts to accumulate a very thick hydrogen and helium atmosphere, so it starts to resemble the gas giants of our solar system rather than anything else that we see as terrestrial.”

This diagram shows the position of Kepler-186f in relation to Earth.

This diagram shows the position of Kepler-186f in relation to Earth. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

The edge of habitability

Kepler-186f actually lies at the edge of the Kepler-186 star’s habitable zone, meaning that liquid water on the planet’s surface could freeze, according to study co-author Stephen Kane of San Francisco State University. Because of its position in the outer part of the habitable zone, the planet’s larger size could actually help keep its water liquid, Kane said in a statement. Since it is slightly bigger than Earth, Kepler-186f could have a thicker atmosphere, which would insulate the planet and potentially keep its water in liquid form, Kane added. “It [Kepler-186f] goes around its star over 130 days, but because its star is a lower mass than our sun, the planet orbits slightly inner of where Mercury orbits in our own solar system,” Barclay said. “It’s on the cooler edge of the habitable zone. It’s still well within it, but it receives less energy than Earth receives. So, if you’re on this planet [Kepler-186f], the star would appear dimmer.” Exoplanet hunting in the future Kepler-186f could be too dim for follow-up studies that would probe the planet’s atmosphere. NASA’sJames Webb Space Telescope — Hubble’s successor, expected to launch to space in 2018 — is designed to image planets around relatively nearby stars; however, the Kepler-186 system might be too far off for the powerful telescope to investigate, Barclay said. Scientists using the Kepler telescope discovered Kepler-186f using the transit method: When the planet moved across the face of its star from the telescope’s perspective, Kepler recorded a slight dip in the star’s brightness, allowing researchers to learn more about the planet itself. Kepler suffered a major malfunction last year and is no longer working in the same fashion, but scientists are still going through the spacecraft’s trove of data searching for new alien worlds. “I find it simply awesome that we live in a time when finding potentially habitable planets is common, and the method to find them is standardized,” MIT exoplanet hunter and astrophysicist Sara Seager, who is unaffiliated with the research, told Space.com via email. The new research was published online today (April 17) in the journal Science.

Hundreds of New Exoplanets Validated by Kepler Telescope Team

A trove of 715 planets—all members of multiworld systems—joins the list of Kepler’s finds

 
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The newly validated Kepler planets are all part of multiworld systems with numerous planets orbiting a single star.
NASA

A huge new haul of planets has joined the tally of alien worlds discovered by NASA’sKepler space telescope, scientists announced today. All of the new planets are members of multiplanet systems—stars with more than one orbiting satellite. Researchers used a new method for weeding out false signals from among the candidate planets found by Kepler, allowing them to add hundreds of “validated” planets to the count of Kepler’s finds. “We studied just over 1,200 systems, and from there we were able to validate 719 planets,” says Jason Rowe of NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., who led the research.* “This is the biggest haul ever.”Kepler launched in 2009 and stopped taking data last year after two of its stabilizingreaction wheels failed. Its relatively short lifetime, however, has already offered up a wealth of discovery, including more than 3,500 planetary candidates as well as 246 worlds confirmed by follow-up observations. The new harvest brings its tally of true planets to over 1,000.

Kepler searches for planets by measuring stellar brightness dips caused when a planet passes in front of a star, briefly dimming the star’s light. This technique, called the transiting method, is more than 90 percent accurate, but sometimes a nonplanet can fool the telescope. One of the most common reasons for a “false positive” is an eclipsing binary—a pair of orbiting stars that sometimes cross in front of one another from our perspective—lying along the same line of sight as the foreground star Kepler is studying. Eclipsing binaries dim when one star passes in front of the other, mimicking the dimming effect a planet would have.

Stars with a single planet can be hard to distinguish from eclipsing binaries. But multiplanet systems are far less likely to be frauds. “It happens, but it’s unlikely that you have two eclipsing binaries in the background of the same star,” says Francois Fressin of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved in the study. “That simple fact tremendously increases the odds that they are bona fide planets.” It is also possible to have an eclipsing binary and a star with a planet lying right on top of one another, albeit extremely unlikely. “Based on that argument we started to get into the statistics to see if we can quantify that and see how many we can pull out and say with very good confidence they are validated planets,” Rowe says.

About 20 percent of the candidate planets Kepler finds inhabit systems with multiple worlds. Among this group, Rowe and his colleagues tried to weed out the small number that were likely to be false signals by examining the light signature of the candidate planets. The light from a single planetary system would be centered on one point, the parent star. An eclipsing binary in the background, however, would probably not lie exactly behind the main star, but would be offset by a small distance. When this binary blinks out as one star crosses the other, the center of the light in the field of view should shift over to the side, creating a signature called a moving centroid. “The moving centroids are the ones where we’re fairly sure they are false positives, and then we have a subset, the majority of them, that we are very confident are planetary systems and show no sign of blends,” Rowe says.

The idea that multiplanet systems are easier to validate is not new, and researchers have previously studied how to winnow out the small number of false positives. “I made this argument [in 2011] but now it has been worked out in careful detail,” says David Latham of the CfA. “Jason has done a really nice job.”

The new cache of planets is extremely unlikely to harbor imposters, but they are not “confirmed planets,” in the traditional sense. That requires measuring the parent star’s motion to determine how much the planets’ gravitational tugging causes it to wobble, revealing the planets’ mass. “Even though we can be very confident that these objects are real planets, the only information we have right now on their physical properties is their size (radius) and expected equilibrium temperature (which depends on the distance to their parent star, which is known),” says Guillermo Torres of the CfA.

Among the new trove of planets: a small, potentially rocky world; an odd binary star system where each star has planets of its own; and cramped systems where the multiple planets are each gravitationally tugging one another around. “Of course we have every type of planetary system in our validated set that people can think of, except the perfect Earth analogue,” Rowe says. For now, that remains Kepler’s holy grail.

*Editor’s Note (2/26/14): The tally of 719 exoplanet validations announced in the quote was restated as 715 by the Kepler team shortly after this story was posted.

Observations of the Solar System’s biggest asteroid suggest it is spewing plumes of water vapour into space

By Jonathan AmosScience correspondent, BBC News

Ceres impression
An artist’s impression of water out-gassing from two sources on Ceres
Observations of the Solar System’s biggest asteroid suggest it is spewing plumes of water vapour into space.

Ceres has long been thought to contain substantial quantities of ice within its body, but this is the first time such releases have been detected.

The discovery was made by Europe’s infrared Herschel space telescope, and is reported in the journal Nature.

Scientists believe the vapour is coming from dark coloured regions on Ceres’ surface, but are not sure of the cause.

One idea is that surface, or near-surface, ice is being warmed by the Sun, turning it directly to a gas that then escapes to space.

“Another possibility,” says the European Space Agency’s Michael Kuppers, “is that there is still some energy in the interior of Ceres, and this energy would make the water vent out in a similar way as for geysers on Earth, only that with the low pressure at the surface of the asteroid, what comes out would be a vapour and not a liquid.”

The quantity being out-gassed is not great – just 6kg per second – but the signature is unmistakable to Herschel, which was perfectly tuned to detect water molecules in space.

The telescope’s observations were made before its decommissioning last year.

Ceres pictured by HubbleCurrently, our best image of Ceres comes from the Hubble Space Telescope

Scientists will get a better idea of what is going on in 2015, when Ceres is visited by theAmerican space agency’s Dawn probe.

The satellite will go into orbit around the 950km-wide body, mapping its surface and determining its composition and structure.

“It will be able to observe those dark regions at high resolution, and will probably solve the question of what process is creating the water vapour,” explained Dr Kuppers.

Ceres is often now referred to as a “dwarf planet” – the same designation used to describe Pluto following its demotion from full planet status in 2006.

The asteroid’s sheer size means gravity has pulled it into a near-spherical form.

It is regarded as quite a primitive body in that it has clearly not undergone the same heating and processing of its materials that the many other objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter have experienced.

Scientists suspect water-ice is buried under Ceres’ crust because its density is less than that of the Earth’s. And this reputation as a “wet body” is supported by the presence of a lot of minerals at its surface that have water bound into their structure.

One theory to explain why Ceres has so much more water-ice than other members of the surrounding asteroid population is that it formed further away from the Sun, and only later migrated to its present location.

This could have happened if perturbed by Jupiter, whose gravity plays a key role in corralling the asteroids in the belt they occupy today.

“We now have a more sophisticated model for the evolution of the Solar System called the Nice model, which successfully explains many of the features of the Solar System, with the planets having migrated outwards and then maybe also inwards,” said Dr Kuppers.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter:@BBCAmos

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