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NASA spots 54 potential life-friendly planets

February 2, 2011 12:35:25 AM PST
An orbiting NASA telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life, including more than 50 potential life-friendly planets.

In just a year of peering out at a small slice of the galaxy, the Kepler telescope has spotted 1,235 possible planets outside our solar system. According to Kepler chief scientist William Borucki, 54 of them are seemingly in the zone that could be hospitable to life - that is, not too hot or too cold.

Until now, only two planets outside our solar system were even thought to be in the "Goldilocks zone," and both those discoveries are highly disputed.

The more than 1,200 newfound bodies are not confirmed as planets yet, but Borucki estimates 80 percent of them will eventually be verified. At least one other astronomer believes Kepler could be 90 percent accurate.

After that, it's another big step in proving that a confirmed planet has some of the basic conditions needed to support life, such as the proper size, composition, temperature and distance from its star. More advanced aspects of habitability such as specific atmospheric conditions and the presence of water and carbon require telescopes that aren't built yet.

Just because a planet is in the habitable zone doesn't mean it has life. Mars is a good example of that. And when scientists look for life, it's not necessarily intelligent life; it could be bacteria or mold or a form people can't even imagine.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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