Surveying thousands of stars for telltale twinkles that signal the passage of an orbiting planet, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered a whopping 706 candidate planets beyond the solar system. If confirmed, that motherlode would boost the number of known extrasolar planets, now estimated at 460, to well over a thousand.
The trove, announced June 15, includes evidence of five stars that have full-fledged planetary systems. These exoplanet systems, if verified, would be the first known in which each planet creates a minieclipse as it transits, or passes in front, of its parent star. The amount of dimming and the duration of a transit offer information about planets, including their size, that cannot be gleaned by less direct methods of detection.
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