Call it payday for planet hunters. The Kepler space telescope mission has detected 26 previously unknown planets orbiting their suns in 11 new planetary systems, NASA's Ames Research Center announced on Thursday.
The discoveries nearly double the number of known alien worlds - or "exoplanets," as astronomers call them.
"Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky," Doug Hudgins, a Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a written statement. "Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates."
The findings show that our Milky Way galaxy is "positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits," Hudgins said.
And the list is likely to keep growing. The number of exoplanets confirmed by the Kepler mission now stands at 61, with an additional 2,326 planets not yet confirmed, MSBC reported. All told, more than 700 planets have been found outside our solar system.
The newly discovered planets vary in size, with some only about 1.5 times the size of Earth and others bigger than Jupiter, Discovery.com reported. It's unclear whether the planets have rocky surfaces like those in Earth or Mars or if they are gaseous planets, like Neptune.
Because the planets have tight orbits around their stars, none is believed to be conducive to life. But astronomers were out of this world with enthusiasm for the findings. As Dimitar D. Sasselov, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, told MSNBC, "There is more diversity out there than our limited imaginations could come up with, which is good."
The discoveries are described in four separate papers published in The Astrophysical Journal.
Here's a NASA animation that shows the planets orbiting their stars.