NASA announced on Thursday that it has discovered 26 new planets in 11 different solar systems. This brings the total number of confirmed planets to 729, with about 2,300 additional possibilities.
These particular planets were discovered as part of the Kepler mission, a $600 million program which was launched in 2009, for the purpose of finding other life-supporting planets like Earth.
All of the newly discovered planets are closer to their stars than Venus is to the sun, and range in size from 1.5 times the size of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Further observation will determine which planets have rocky surfaces and which are gaseous. Sadly, NASA was only able to confirm the existence of the planets themselves, and no doubt disappointed legions of Area 51 devotees when it could not announce the discovery of any actual alien life-forms.
The Kepler project utilizes something called the transit method to find new planets, focusing on a portion of the sky between the Cygnus and Lyra constellations. By measuring the varying brightness of stars in that patch of sky, scientists can determine when a planetary mass is passing between Earth and a star, and map each new solar system accordingly.
So far, the Kepler mission is responsible for the discovery of 61 planets. With all these extra ones popping up every day, who needs Pluto in the family anyway?