If you think the Kepler space telescope has already spotted a lot of exoplanets, you haven't seen the half of it... almost literally. After a lot of hype, NASA's Kepler team has verified the existence of 1,284 new planets. That's more than twice as many confirmed planets as before. Almost 550 from the new batch are big enough to be Earth-like rocky planets, while nine of them are in their host star's habitable zone and have the potential to support life.
The key, the agency says, is the first-ever large-scale use of automated computation to determine the likelihood that candidates really are planets. If the chances are higher than 99 percent, a candidate makes the cut. It's possible that some of the under-99 crowd includes planets, but researchers will have to conduct follow-up investigations to make sure.
Kepler and other telescopes are nowhere near making a comprehensive survey of the observable planets in our galaxy, and it's not certain that you'll get these kinds of bumper crops in the future. However, the data increasingly suggests that planets are abundant -- there could even be "more planets than stars," if you ask NASA's Paul Hertz. Although the possibility of life-bearing planets appears to be much smaller, this at least raises the chances of locating another Earth-like world.