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NASA Team Finds New Planets in Milky Way Galaxy


The U.S. space agency, NASA, says a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered 16 potential planets orbiting distant stars in the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope announced Wednesday the discovery of potentially 16 new planets. These extrasolar candidates are roughly the size of Jupiter and nearly 26,000 light-years away. The Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search, as the quest is called, led the Hubble survey of about 180,000 stars. Team member Mario Livio says his group's findings offer new insight into our galaxy. "This allows us to say now with a very high degree of confidence that there are literally billions of planets in our galaxy," he said.

But he stresses that what the team found are potential planets. Hubble could not directly view the planets. The astronomers had to use a transit method, measuring the slight dimming of a star when a celestial body passed in front. With this method, astronomers could obtain mass measurements only for two planets. However, the team leader, Kailash Sahu, says he expects that number to be higher.

"Doing a careful analysis of all their light curves, we can estimate that at least seven of these 16 candidates must be genuine planets."

NASA plans to launch into space a new telescope in 2008 that, it says, is designed to hunt for new planets. The Kepler telescope, named after a 16th Century German astronomer, will be one meter in diameter and capable of detecting what NASA calls "Earthlike planets."

The Carnegie Institute's Alan Boss says there are more exciting findings to come. "We're really getting the feeling that we are going to find planets relatively nearby that have habitable worlds, if not inhabited, but certainly habitable," he said.

Boss says there will be plenty of work for astronomers to find out more about the newly discovered planets.