On Thursday at noon, NASA is holding a news conference to announce the latest discoveries made by its planet-hunting mission, the Kepler Space Telescope.
The space telescope -- which actually should have gone kaput after a hardware failure in 2013 -- is designed to figure out just how special Earth is. The hope, of course, is that we're not special at all: The more "Earth-like" planets there are, the more likely it is that life (in a form we can recognize) evolved somewhere else in the universe.
And when we say Earth-like, we mean it in the loosest possible sense. These are planets that are the right size and distance from their sun to be rocky planets, like our own, and ones that could potentially hold liquid water. But the Kepler isn't getting a close-up view of these planets -- it's measuring them based on the way they dim the light of their host stars as they pass in front of them. Some of these planets have also been confirmed through a second method on the ground that looks for wobbles (or Doppler shifts) in the starlight caused by the gravity of the orbiting objects.
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So while we can hope that NASA has found some more interesting planets, Kepler isn't capable of confirming that planets have life, or even that they can definitely support it. It's just good at letting us know they're there, and that they might be a little more like us than your average piece of rock in space. Which is great.
We'll have more on the latest Kepler finds at noon. In the meantime, tide yourself over with some of the telescope's recent finds: