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Revived Kepler mission adds 104 planets to list

Image: Kepler discovery
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Kepler telescope observing four planets as they pass across the disk of their parent star. The comparative sizes of the spacecraft and the star are not to scale. (Credit: NASA / JPL)

Astronomers say they’ve confirmed the existence of 104 worlds to add to the list of extrasolar planets detected by NASA’s Kepler K2 mission, and at least two of them appear to be potentially habitable super-Earths.

The two prospects are among four planets orbiting K2-72, a red dwarf (or M dwarf) star that’s 181 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius.

All four of the planets are between 20 and 50 percent wider than Earth. They all come closer to K2-72 than Mercury comes to our own sun. But because the red dwarf is so much cooler than our sun, the worlds known as K2-72c and K2-72e lie in the star system’s habitable zone. That means it’s conceivable that liquid water could exist on those planets.

K2-72c makes a complete orbit of its sun every 15 Earth days and is thought to be about 10 percent warmer than Earth. K2-72e is farther out: It has a 24-day orbit and should be about 6 percent cooler than Earth.

Study leader Ian Crossfield, who works at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said he couldn’t rule out the possibility of life arising in such red dwarf environments.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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