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Astronomers collect evidence of 15 exoplanets that could harbor life

A team of amateur astronomers have reportedly snapped images of fifteen exoplanets, all of which are thought to reside in within the habitable zone of nearby stars.

On Monday, the project Planet Hunters — coordinated by Oxford University — announced the discovery of fifteen  new exoplanets within the habitable zone around their respective stars. The discoveries are the first made by amateur astronomers with access to data collected by hundreds of international organizations and scientists through NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Scientists around the world analyze more than 13,000 transit-like signals to eliminate known spacecraft instrumentation and astrophysical false positives, phenomena that masquerade as planetary candidates, to identify the potential new planets.

The team expressed hope that the findings would lead to more research on the planets in question. One of the fifteen planets identified by the group has already been confirmed by the Keck telescope.  Dubbed “PH2 b”, the planet is thought to be roughly the size of Jupiter orbiting a star similar to our Sun.

“We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life. I can’t wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now,’ said Dr. Ji Wang of Yale University.

“Jupiter has several large water-rich moons – imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we’d see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats – a surprising scenario that might just be common,” added Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, who heads the project.

The discovery follows in the wake of a number of stunning findings made in the hunt for an Earth-like planet. Astronomers around the world, including those at NASA, have spent much of the past year following up on data collected by the space telescope.

The latest exoplanet news also comes as NASA’s Kepler mission Monday announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s “habitable zone,” the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.  Based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, the findings show a steady increase in the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate.

The latest findings were submitted to Astrophysical Journal and has more than forty Planet Hunter volunteers listed as authors.