The First 1,235 Alien Worlds NASA's Planet-Hunting Telescope Has Found

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kepler-alien-planets-illustration.jpg

NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope in March 2009 to give astronomers an idea about how many planets might exist out there in the depths of space. Unlike other telescopes, Kepler doesn't look at different parts of the sky; it focuses on one patch of space and surveys the same stars over and over. The telescope is looking for the regular dimming of the stars, which can indicate that a planet has passed between the Earth and that star. Scientists call that a "transiting" planet.

So far, Kepler's spotted 1,235 possible transiting planets, including 54 that are in what scientists call the habitable zone. They estimate that those planets are at the right distance from their respective stars to have liquid water, which is a requirement for all life that we know. They are all shown in the graphic above.

Below the top row of huge stars, you can see our own sun at scale. Both Jupiter and Earth are shown transiting, but Earth is just the tiniest speck.

So far, only 15 of these possible planets have been confirmed as discoveries by ground-based telescopes.

Image: NASA.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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