Kepler Space Probe

Kepler Space Probe

Nasa’s Kepler space probe has found more than just 706 potential new planets — it may also have found five new solar systems.

Buried in the deluge of data sent back by the probe are clear signs that at least five of the 150,000-plus stars it has studied may have two or more planets in orbit around them. Some appear similar to Earth.

Up to 140 of the newly found planets are rocky and Earth-like containing both land and water, conditions which could allow simple lifeforms to develop.

Astronomers are keen to find out how common multi-planet systems are because these are thought most likely to create the stable conditions where earth-like life might have a chance to evolve.

These results emerged from the first six weeks of Kepler’s mission. Over the four years of Kepler’s mission many more such systems may emerge. The potential extrasolar systems were among 706 candidate planets found in Kepler’s first six weeks of operation.

This alone suggests planets are common, although it is not just the number but also size distribution that is important. Nasa has selected 400 of Kepler’s finds to follow up using ground-based instruments and Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. The results are due by February

“The next step after Kepler will be to study the atmospheres of the planets and see if we can find any signs of life,” said Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astronomy at Harvard University who is a member of the Kepler science team.