Space is still the final frontier, and NASA has announced that the frontier is more vast than we realized. The NASA Kepler mission has discovered 715 planets set up in multiple-planet systems a lot like ours. The discovery more than doubled the number of known worlds in one fell swoop.
Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. Discoveries include more than 3,600 planet candidates, of which 961 have been verified as bona fide worlds, according to a release from NASA. Since the discovery of planets outside our solar system two decades back, the process of identifying them has been a slow planet-by-planet setup. Now, scientists on the Kepler mission are using a statistical technique that can be applied to make the identification process move at light speed, relativity-wise.
The exciting part of all this is that the discovery of all these unknown worlds means there's a greater chance that some of these planets will resemble ours. The whole point of the Kepler mission is to potentially discover planets that we could live on, and with this new list of planets, scientists have already found some that are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth (meaning they're the right size) and orbit their suns in the safe zone where the planets are just close enough to be habitable. To translate: These planets are about the same size as the Earth, and might even have water to sustain life.
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That may not seem terribly exciting, considering NASA's budget has been repeatedly slashed in recent years and the odds of astronauts reaching the moon again, let alone Mars, in the next ten years look pretty slim. But the thing is, scientists are finding these planets. They know they're out there. It may be generations before astronauts try to actually walk on them, but at least the planets exist to be explored, and now we know about them. And it may be awhile before we get to the planets, but maybe the aliens on these habitable places will come visit us first. If that day ever comes, let's hope for friendly aliens, like Spock.