NASA's Kepler telescope just found two planets that could support life
An international team of scientists using NASA's Kepler telescope just announced a huge haul of more than 100 new exoplanets, 112.international reports.
Among them is a four-planet solar system some 181 light-years away, which scientists say has a good chance of supporting life.
K2–72 is an M dwarf star orbited by four planets, lying in the direction of the Aquarius constellation.
Researchers suggest all four of these worlds could be rocky, and while they orbit their host star very closely, K2–72's relative coolness means two of them might be habitable.
While all of the planets around K2–72 are considered small as far as planets go, they're each between 20 to 50 percent larger than Earth is by diameter.
All four stick very close to K2–72 – closer than Mercury is to our Sun – but because K2–72 is a red dwarf, it's comparatively small and dim, and its habitable zone doesn't reach out as far as our Sun's as a result.
Because of this, two of K2–72's planets fall within the life-friendly boundary, with irradiation levels from their star comparable to those found on Earth, and offering conditions that would support the existence of liquid water on their surfaces.
The K2–72 discovery is just one gem among a massive haul of new exoplanets discovered by a team of researchers led by the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who used Kepler to find 197 planet candidates, of which 104 are confirmed exoplanets – the biggest swathe of exoplanets found since Kepler's mind-boggling detection of 1,284 alien worlds just a couple of months back.
What's most remarkable about the latest discoveries is that these exoplanet identifications are actually the results of a total accident. In 2012 the space observatory's reaction wheels began to malfunction, robbing the telescope of the ability to stabilise itself towards a particular, narrow portion of the sky in its original mission.
Luckily NASA engineers struck upon an ingenious fix for the problem, calculating that photons from the Sun would be able to help stabilise the telescope for its new K2 mission, observing a broader portion of the sky within the ecliptic plane, and giving it greater scope to detect stars, including cooler, red-dwarf types like K2–72.