February 28, 2011

Personal Submarine Becomes Reality

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets — bferrari @ 4:50 pm
No special training needed

No special training needed

Forget jetpacks, hoverboards and beer hats — the ultimate toy has always been something that’s obvious, yet up until now, has seemed to be curiously avoided by leisure industry manufacturers — personal submarines.

First widely used during World War I, submarines have been around for quite a while but these machines were cramped, uncomfortable, and difficult to navigate. Moreover, the vehicles didn’t seem suited to personal use, aside from this effort from a Chinese farmer last year.

Then suddenly, in the last two years, there’s been a rash of the ultimate escape vehicles hitting the market consumer market, culminating with the debut of Raonhaje’s EGO at a boat show in Miami last week.

Unlike the dinky uBoatWorx submersibles and awkward Ocean Pearl, the EGO looks like what a proper undersea exploration lab should look like while doubling as a personal mobile island.

Its electric battery can provide you with anywhere between 4 and 10 hours of power, depending on your cruising speed.

Easy to drive? It has a steering wheel and an accelerator, just like a car. Although the South Korean company that’s building the Ego seem a little unsure of the legal requirements.

When asked if a special licence or training is required to drive the EGO, their official answer is: “Not really.” Although, “it would be good if you learn a simple basic education before boarding,” they add.

The EGO’s biggest plus is the three giant windows that form the bubble you and your explorer buddy sit in.

Raonhaje says the windows are made from a “special acrylic” material, 200mm thick and 200 times stronger than glass.

“Damage by water pressure almost does not occur,” they claim.

You can probably see by now where this is going…

More than a little worryingly, it comes with a one-year warranty and, according to its website, “is not airtight as submarine”.

The EGO will be officially released – in seven colors – in October, and despite the wonky translations, still looks the business, at least until we see an affordable version of the much sexier Orca Sub from SubAviator.

Neither of which come with beer hats.


Heaviest Antimatter Found; Made in U.S. Atom Smasher

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets — bferrari @ 4:42 pm

Finding new particles “like stamp collecting,” expert says.

The heaviest antimatter was spotted by the STAR detector (pictured) at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

The heaviest antimatter was spotted by the STAR detector (pictured) at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

A tiny “big bang” set off in Long Island recently created a new type of antimatter that’s literally off the charts, scientists announced last week.

Dubbed the antihypertriton, the newfound antimatter is the heaviest yet detected. What’s more, it’s the first type of particle that contains what’s called an antistrange quark, which puts the antihypertriton in a new plane on the periodic table of elements.

(Related: “Element 118 Created, This Time for Real, Scientists Say.”)

Scientists created the new antimatter last spring using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The collider sends heavy ions—atoms that have had their electrons removed—careening into each other at near light speed so that the atoms break into their component particles.

After smashing together gold ions more than a hundred thousand times, researchers sifting through the particulate “rubble” found about 70 antihypertritons. The particle is about 200 megaelectron volts heavier than the previous most massive record holder, antihelium.

“People think we are strange because everyone wants to turn things into gold,” said RHIC researcher Zhangbu Xu. “We turn gold into exotic antimatter.”

Antimatter Made From “Quark Soup”

The cores, or nuclei, of normal atoms are made of subatomic particles called protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of smaller particles called quarks and gluons. By contrast, antimatter nuclei are made of particles that have the same masses as their counterparts but with opposite charges and magnetic properties.

(See “Antimatter Atoms Trapped for First Time—’A Big Deal.'”)

In the beginning, the big bang created equal amounts of matter and antimatter. But there was so much material that gravitational forces kept the particles from spreading out. In the tiny space, antimatter and matter collided and annihilated, turning into pure energy.

Physicists are still puzzling as to why anything survived annihilation, and why our universe today has more matter than antimatter. Creating smaller big bangs in the lab is one way scientists are trying to solve the mystery.

When the RHIC’s incredibly fast particles smash into each other, they create a “soup of quark and gluons,” said Xu, who presented the results Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

As the soup cools—in just a tiny fraction of a second—the elementary particles form bigger particles such as hypertritons and antihypertritons, just as scientists believe occurred in the moments immediately following the big bang.

The newfound antihypertriton is doubly exciting for physicists, because it sits below the plane of the 3-D version of the periodic table.

In the flat chart familiar to schoolrooms, scientists arrange the elements according to the number of protons in their atoms, which denotes mass. But particle physicists further map the elements based on the numbers of neutrons and so-called strange quarks, which aren’t found in protons or neutrons.

Several types of normal hydrogen, helium, and lithium atoms contain strange quarks, and they are placed above the flat plane of the periodic table. The new antihypertriton is the first antimatter particle to contain an antistrange quark, so it goes below the plane.

Finding New Particles Is Like Stamp Collecting

It’s still unclear whether finding the antihypertriton will have practical implications for physics, said Frank Close, a physicist at the University of Oxford and author of the book Antimatter.

“One way of saying it is it’s stamp collecting. Some stamps are more exciting than others,” he said.

“The fact that this particle has been found confirms our general belief that antimatter should exist just as much as matter exists,” Close added.

When it comes to answering questions about why there’s so little antimatter in the universe, the find “doesn’t point us any nearer to the answer, but it adds another notch to the general enigma.”

(Related: “Thunderstorms Shoot Antimatter Beams Into Space.”)

Although the new antimatter was presented recently, the antihypertriton was first described in a paper published online March 4, 2010, in the journal Science Express.

Since that time, the RHIC team has smashed together many more atoms, and Xu and colleagues are still in the process of analyzing the new data in the hopes of finding even more exotic particles.

The hundred million collisions that created antihypertritons, for example, also produced more than 2,000 nuclei of antihelium-3, another rare antiparticle.

“RHIC is an antimatter machine,” RHIC’s Xu said.


February 21, 2011

Cosmic Count: About 50 Billion Planets in Milky Way

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Life, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 9:38 am
The Milky Way

The Milky Way spins in the sky above wind turbines near Lake Benton and Hendricks, Minn. Scientists have estimated the first cosmic census of planets in our galaxy and the numbers are astronomical: at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way. At least 500 million of those planets are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold zone where life could exist, scientists announced Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

OUTER SPACE –  Scientists have estimated the first cosmic census of planets in our galaxy and the numbers are astronomical: at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way.

At least 500 million of those planets are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold zone where life could exist. The numbers were extrapolated from the early results of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope.

Kepler science chief William Borucki says scientists took the number of planets they found in the first year of searching a small part of the night sky and then made an estimate on how likely stars are to have planets. Kepler spots planets as they pass between Earth and the star it orbits.

So far Kepler has found 1,235 candidate planets, with 54 in the Goldilocks zone, where life could possibly exist. Kepler’s main mission is not to examine individual worlds, but give astronomers a sense of how many planets, especially potentially habitable ones, there are likely to be in our galaxy. They would use the one-four-hundredth of the night sky that Kepler is looking at and extrapolate from there.

Borucki and colleagues figured one of two stars has planets and one of 200 stars has planets in the habitable zone, announcing these ratios Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington. And that’s a minimum because these stars can have more than one planet and Kepler has yet to get a long enough glimpse to see planets that are further out from the star, like Earth, Borucki said.

For example, if Kepler were 1,000 light years from Earth and looking at our sun and noticed Venus passing by, there’s only a one-in-eight chance that Earth would also be seen, astronomers said.

To get the estimate for the total number of planets, scientists then took the frequency observed already and applied it to the number of stars in the Milky Way.

For many years scientists figured there were 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, but last year a Yale scientist figured the number was closer to 300 billion stars.

Either way it shows that Carl Sagan was right when he talked of billions and billions of worlds, said retired NASA astronomer Steve Maran, who praised the research but wasn’t part of it.

And that’s just our galaxy. Scientists figure there are 100 billion galaxies.

Borucki said the new calculations lead to worlds of questions about life elsewhere in the cosmos. “The next question is why haven’t they visited us?”

And the answer? “I don’t know,” Borucki said.

February 20, 2011

Navy Breaks World Record With Futuristic Free-Electron Laser

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military — bferrari @ 6:17 pm
Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, director of the injector and electron gun systems for the free-electron laser program, shows off the navy's futuristic gun.

Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, director of the injector and electron gun systems for the free-electron laser program, shows off the navy's futuristic gun.

WASHINGTON –  The Navy just set a new world record, a test blast from a new type of laser that can shoot cruise missiles from the sky in seconds with a deadly accuracy that simply doesn’t exist in the military’s vast arsenal today.

And that new record moved them one step closer to proving the “holy grail” of laser guns is real.

To create incredible power requires incredible energy. After all, the more power one puts into a laser accelerator, the more powerful and precise the light beam that comes out on the other end. During a private tour of the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, VA., on Friday, saw scientists blast unprecedented levels of power into a prototype accelerator, producing a supercharged electron beam that can burn through 20 feet of steel per second.

Scientists there, in coordination with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), injected a sustained 500 kilovolts (KV) of juice into a prototype accelerator where the existing limit had been 320 kV — a world’s record, the scientists explained.

“This is brand new — it has not been done before, in the world,” said Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, director of the injector and electron gun systems for the FEL (Free Electron Laser) program, who added that Friday’s breakthrough was the culmination of six years of development.

But what does this mean to the Navy, and to war fighting in particular? Quentin Salter, program manager for ONR, said the test steps up the transition to newer, more powerful laser technologies.

“It’s huge in regards to upgrading the laser power beam quality,” he said. According to ONR officials, that laser beam will eventually perform at a staggering “megawatt class,” a measure of the laser’s strength. Right now, the accelerator at Jefferson Lab is performing at just 14 Kilowatts.

Next up for the tech: additional weaponization. The Navy just awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $163 million to take that technology and package it as a 100 kW weapons system, one that the Navy hopes to use not only to destroy things but for on-ship communications, tracking and detection, too — using a fraction of the energy such applications use now, plus with more accuracy. Saulter said they hope to meet that goal by 2015.

“We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other piece of flying metal,” explained Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr Jr., Chief of Naval Research, in an interview with That’s why he calls free election laser technology or “directed energy” tech “our marquee program.”

While Carr acknowledges that this is not “something that we are going to wave a wand at and it’s going to appear” — in fact, the Navy doesn’t expect to hit the ultimate megawatt goal until the 2020s — there have been several incremental victories that have pushed this project ahead of schedule that have scientists and program managers excited.

“With every single milestone, [the naysayers] have been proven wrong,” said Dr. George R. Neil, associate director of the FEL program at Jefferson Lab. Neil pointed to a bottle of champagne in the control room — that one was for when they met the 10 kW threshold four years ago, nearly a decade after the Navy began funding the development of the FEL accelerator at the Newport News facility.

Today, Neil and others have shown that they have the ability to harness super-conducting electron power.

The military already uses lasers across the spectrum. What make this technology different (and its potential so extraordinary) is its power source.

The military now uses solid-state lasers that use crystals and glass, as well as chemical lasers that use often dangerous liquid materials. The FEL is different. It requires only electrons, which can be created from matter inside the injector with energy that is constantly recycled. In other words, it uses less shipboard power than current weapons systems. “It won’t slow down the ship,” Saulter said.

In addition, according to Navy officials, the FEL laser can perform at different wavelengths, meaning it can operate at lower and more powerful levels so that it can be used for different applications, which other laser technology cannot. It is also not vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, as solid-state lasers are, making them wane in power depending on the weather.

“The fact that you can tune the wavelength, that’s what makes it different. You can optimize the beam for the conditions of the day — that’s really powerful,” said Adm. Carr. “So in a warfighting sense, the FEL’s ability to do that on a ship makes it much more attractive” than other laser technology.

The scope of the project from start to finish is impressively daunting. It’s outfitted with enough piping, conductors, cables and other material to fill a small gymnasium, and they do this all at the lab.

The Navy must not only figure out a way to harness the electron beam into a light ray, but to shrink the accelerator down to size so that it would fit neatly on a Navy destroyer.

But for now, researchers take each milestone as proof they are moving in the right direction. The Navy has asked for $60 million for its directed energy budget for 2012. As for Friday’s 500 kV breakthrough, they say it’s a big one.

“This will shorten the timeline for the Navy to get to the Megawatt” league, Saulter said. Clearly, the day’s events were a feather in everyone’s cap.


February 14, 2011

NASA finds Earth-sized planet candidates in habitable zone

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 9:26 pm
The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data.

By NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. — Published: February 3, 2011

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010.

NASA’s Kepler Spacecraft Discovers Extraordinary New Planetary System

Scientists using NASA’s Kepler, a space telescope, recently discovered six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11, which is located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

“The Kepler-11 planetary system is amazing,” said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and a Kepler science team member at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “It’s amazingly compact, it’s amazingly flat, there’s an amazingly large number of big planets orbiting close to their star – we didn’t know such systems could even exist.”

In other words, Kepler-11 has the fullest, most compact planetary system yet discovered beyond our own.

“Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three,” said Lissauer. “So we know that systems like this are not common. There’s certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it’s one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don’t know, because we only have observed one of them.”

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11, a yellow dwarf star, are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outwards, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is twice as close to its star than Earth is to the sun.

“The five inner planets are all closer to their star than any planet is to our sun and the sixth planet is still fairly close,” said Lissauer.

If placed in our solar system, Kepler-11g would orbit between Mercury and Venus, and the other five planets would orbit between Mercury and our sun. The orbits of the five inner planets in the Kepler-11 planetary system are much closer together than any of the planets in our solar system. The inner five exoplanets have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days around the dwarf star, while Kepler-11g has a period of 118 days.

“By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we have determined they are among the smallest confirmed exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system,” said Lissauer. “These planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets’ mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume.”

According to Lissauer, Kepler-11 is a remarkable planetary system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation. The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which Lissauer says indicates that at least these three planets formed early in the history of the planetary system, within a few million years.

Kepler-11 planetary system and our solar system from a tilted perspective to demonstrate that the orbits of each lie on similar planes.

Kepler-11 planetary system and our solar system from a tilted perspective to demonstrate that the orbits of each lie on similar planes.

A planetary system is born when a molecular cloud core collapses to form a star. At this time, disks of gas and dust in which planets form, called protoplanetary disks, surround the star. Protoplanetary disks can be seen around most stars that are less than a million years old, but few stars more than five million years old have them. This leads scientists to theorize that planets which contain significant amounts of gas form relatively quickly in order to obtain gases before the disk disperses.

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to return science data about the new Kepler-11 planetary system for the remainder of its mission. The more transits Kepler sees, the better scientists can estimate the sizes and masses of planets.

“These data will enable us to calculate more precise estimates of the planet sizes and masses, and could allow us to detect more planets orbiting the Kepler-11 star,” said Lissauer. “Perhaps we could find a seventh planet in the system, either because of its transits or from the gravitational tugs it exerts on the six planets that we already see. We’re going to learn a fantastic amount about the diversity of planets out there, around stars within our galaxy.”

A space observatory, Kepler looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star’s brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet’s orbital period.

The Kepler science team is using ground-based telescopes, as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope, to perform follow-up observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest found by the spacecraft. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets.

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

“Kepler can only see 1/400 of the sky,” said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the mission’s science principal investigator. “Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun.”

Kepler is NASA’s tenth Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system, and along with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is supporting mission operations. Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted at the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona, and the Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.


February 9, 2011

Some of Universe’s First Stars May Still Be Visible

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Supernova — bferrari @ 7:36 pm
Birth of a primordial star, as seen through a supercomputer simulation which found that the first stars in the universe likely formed in groups instead of alone.

Birth of a primordial star, as seen through a supercomputer simulation which found that the first stars in the universe likely formed in groups instead of alone.

A new study that suggests the first stars in the universe formed in groups instead of in isolation, as previously thought, also has found something else: Some of these first stars may still be visible today.

The study, which used supercomputers to simulate the formation of the first stars in the universe, recreated a system of protostars – the precursors to full-blown stars – created from the same cloud of gas at nearly the same time.

The simulation revealed that a central protostar would be created first and would become the most massive, much as was predicted in the previous view of the universe. A number of smaller protostars would follow.

But sometimes the gravitational pull from the other seeded stars would catapult one of the members out of the system.

The ejected star would have to be very young, only around 100,000 years old, the researchers said. Because the age of a star and its mass are linked — the more massive a star, the faster it tends to age — a low-enough mass in the newly single star could mean it still had a long-enough life ahead of it to make it visible today, they said.

But it would have had to be ejected while its mass was in a very narrow range.

The universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. “To survive for the 13 billion years since the end of the dark ages, when they were formed, the star could not have been more massive than a solar mass or so,” said study co-investigator Volker Bromm, an astronomer with the University of Texas at Austin. “Even a little bit [more] mass pushes it over the boundary of survival.”

Then, too, there is the challenge of locating such a star among the billions that came after.

The ideal place to search would be the center of the Milky Way. However, only a few hundred to a few thousand may exist, and they would be intermixed with the billions of stars that have since formed.

“This is the ultimate needle-in-a-haystack search,” Bromm said.

The situation isn’t completely hopeless. Modern large-scale digitized surveys vastly increase the odds of locating such a star.

NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope is expected to search for early galaxies and stars using its ultra-deep near-infrared surveys. Several large ground-based telescopes, like the planned Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), also are expected to be able to peer further back than ever into the early days of the universe. Such instruments could potentially detect such a star.

Locating a primordial star, known as a Population III star, would provide astronomers with data about the early universe. The abundance of deuterium and lithium — which the Big Bang would have created — could be directly measured rather than inferred.

Similarly, these stars would provide solid data for theoretical models.

“For once, we would know that the star formation process in the early universe did enable low-mass stars to form,” Bromm said. “On the other hand, if an extensive search of the Milky Way’s bulge turns up empty, we would know that our models need to explain why virtually all Population III stars grew to be more massive.”


February 6, 2011

NASA Releases First 360-Degree View of Entire Sun

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, The Sun — bferrari @ 9:27 pm


NASA has released the first 360-degree view of the entire sun today, just in time for Super Bowl Sunday.

The photo comes courtesy of NASA’s twin STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) spacecraft, which aligned exactly opposite each other on opposite sides of the sun to capture the image.

The ability to see the whole sun, front to back, will allow scientists to better understand complicated solar weather patterns and plan for future robotic or crewed spacecraft missions throughout the solar system, researchers said.

“The sun is a truly complex object which influences many aspects of our lives,” Richard Harrison, principal investigator for the U.K. instruments on STEREO, said in a statement. “In the same way that you would not expect to understand the workings of the brain by studying just a small part of it, a global investigation into the nature of our star as a complete object is essential to understanding how it works.”

Harrison is also co-investigator of NASA’s SDO mission (Solar Dynamics Observatory), which contributed to the new 360-degree view with high-resolution sun photos taken from orbit.

Scientists particularly want to better predict space weather and the violent eruptions that can spout from the sun’s surface. These eruptions can damage satellites, disrupt communications and disable power systems on Earth.

NASA’s STEREo spacecraft artist’s illustration.

“Solar missions such as STEREO and SDO not only give us more information about star formation and evolution throughout our universe, but are of vital importance in our quest to further understand the sun’s processes and the effect they can have on our planet and way of life,” said David Parker, director of space science and exploration for the U.K. Space Agency. “This spectacular 360-degree view is another triumph for the STEREO mission, which continues to obtain some of the best images yet of the sun.”

The two identical spacecraft of the NASA STEREO mission were launched in October 2006. They are offset from one another, one flying ahead of the Earth and the other behind.

SDO is the first mission in NASA’s Living with a Star program and was launched in February 2010. SDO’s unique orbit allows high-resolution images of the sun to be recorded every three-quarters of a second.

*Gallery: Amazing Sun Photos From Space

* Huge Solar Flare Creates Gorgeous Filament

* NASA Robot Will Help Kick Off Super Bowl Sunday


February 2, 2011

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Finds Plenty of Planets Outside Solar System

Filed under: Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 12:02 pm
NASAs Kepler telescope is finding that relatively smaller planets -- still larger than Earth, but tinier than Jupiter -- are proving more common outside our solar system than once thought. This drawing is of one of the smallest planets that Kepler has found, a rocky planet called Kepler-10b, that measures 1.4 times the size of Earth and where the temperature is more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASAs Kepler telescope is finding that relatively smaller planets -- still larger than Earth, but tinier than Jupiter -- are proving more common outside our solar system than once thought. This drawing is of one of the smallest planets that Kepler has found, a rocky planet called Kepler-10b, that measures 1.4 times the size of Earth and where the temperature is more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA’s planet-hunting telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life. An early report from a cosmic census indicates that relatively small planets and stable multi-planet systems are far more plentiful than previous searches showed.

NASA released new data Wednesday from its Kepler telescope on more than 1,000 possible new planets outside our solar system — more than doubling the count of what astronomers call exoplanets. They haven’t been confirmed as planets yet, but some astronomers estimate that 90 percent of what Kepler has found will eventually be verified.

Kepler, launched in 2009, has been orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, conducting a planet census and searching for Earth-like planets since last year. It has found there are more planets that are much smaller than Jupiter — the biggest planet in our solar system — than there are giant planets.

Some of these even approach Earth’s size. That means they are better potential candidates for life than the behemoths that are more easily spotted, astronomers say.

While Kepler hasn’t yet found planets that are as small as Earth, all the results are “pointing in the right direction,” said University of California Santa Cruz astronomer Jonathan Fortney, a Kepler researcher.

Yale University exoplanet expert Debra Fischer, who wasn’t part of the Kepler team but serves as an outside expert for NASA, said the new information “gives us a much firmer footing” in eventual hopes for worlds that could harbor life.

“I feel different today knowing these new Kepler results than I did a week ago,” Fischer said.


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