NASA satellite TRIPLES number of known planets in the universe

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Dec 14, 2012

NASA's awesomely named deep-space observatory, the Kepler Planet Hunter, has been designed to scour space for planets less massive than Earth. The latest data, released on Feb. 2, is an astronomer's dream come true: The Planet Hunter has tagged 1,235 objects as possible planets.

That's three times as many planets as we'd known about before.

This is fantastic news for those looking to eventually expand our foothold in the galaxy (and there are organizations that strategize how to get there): The more planets we can observe, the greater our chances of finding a second home for civilization. But no doubt the number 1,235 will fluctuate, as some of these planets may be identified as double stars.

The New York Times reports that the 1200-plus planets have been briefly studied. (Note: You may have to register to read the article.)

Of the new candidates, 68 are one-and-a-quarter times the size of the Earth or smaller—smaller, that is, than any previously discovered planets outside the solar system. Fifty-four of the possible exoplanets are in the so-called habitable zones, where temperatures should be moderate enough for liquid water, of stars dimmer and cooler than the Sun; four of these are less than twice the size of Earth, and one is even smaller.

Is there a green-and-blue planet like ours out there? Scientists have been scouring the data for four months now and have come up empty ... but this project has three years and two months earmarked for more discoveries. And with three times as many planets, our odds of finding something suitable have likewise increased.

If you want to delve into the subject a little deeper, take a look at this NASA page, which includes a very useful FAQ.

In fact, you can give NASA a hand. The United States' national space agency needs volunteers to help sort through the data.

Planet Hunters is an online experiment that taps into the power of human pattern recognition. Participants are partners with our science team, who will analyze group assessments, obtain follow up observations at the telescope to understand the new classification schemes for different families of light curves, identify oddities, and verify transit signals.

You can volunteer, or just play around with the interactive website, here.

If you're lucky, and very good with pattern recognition, you can make some extremely fascinating discovery. And then the next Planet Hunter will be named after YOU.