Image: This artist's Impression depicts the view from a moon around newly found planet PH2 b.
Haven Giguere
This artist's Impression depicts the view from a moon around newly found planet PH2 b.
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updated 1/13/2013 2:04:10 PM ET 2013-01-13T19:04:10

A team of amateurs has discovered evidence for 42 alien planets, including a Jupiter-size world that could potentially be habitable, by sifting through data from a NASA spacecraft.

Forty volunteers with the crowd-sourcing Planet Hunters project discovered the new planet candidates, which include 15 potentially habitable worlds and PH2 b, a Jupiter-size planet that the team confirmed to be in the habitable zone of its parent star.

This is the second time Planet Hunters project, which is overseen by Zooniverse, has confirmed a new exoplanet discovery. What's more, several candidate planets found by the project may be in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These candidates are awaiting confirmation by professional astronomers.

Researchers suggested this bonanza of planets in the so-called Goldilocks zone around a star, a habitable zone in which conditions are liquid water to exist on a planet’s surface and potentially supportlife, could mean there is a "traffic jam" of worlds where life could exist, project officials said.

"These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers,” said the University of Oxford's Chris Lintott, who helms the Zooniverse, in a statement. “It's remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.”

Life on an 'Avatar'-like moon
The planet PH2 b was found using data from NASA's prolific Kepler Space Telescope and confirmed with 99.9 percent confidence by observations at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

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Ph2 b is considered much too large to host life. However, any moons orbiting the planet could be strong candidates, astronomers said. The atmospheric temperature on the planet would range between 86 and minus 126 degrees Fahrenheit (30 and minus 88 degrees Celsius) in the habitable zone.

“Any moon around this newly discovered, Jupiter-sized planet might be habitable," stated Ji Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. He is lead author of a paper about the discoveries, which has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and is available on the pre-publishing website Arxiv.

If a theoretical moon were to host life, it would likely have a rocky core, plus a greenhouse atmosphere of some sort that could have liquid water on its surface, the researchers said.

"It’s very similar to what was depicted in the movie ‘Avatar’ – the habitable moon Pandora around a giant planet, Polyphemus," Wang added.

A telltale dim
Volunteers spotted PH2 b by watching its parent star. As the planet passed in front of the star, the apparent brightness from Earth dimmed.

This is one of two commonly used techniques for finding exoplanets ; the other is looking for wobbles in a star's gravityas a planet speeds around it.

Excluding PH2 b, citizen scientists recently discovered 42 planetary candidates, with 20 of those likely in their respective stars' habitable regions.

"These detections nearly double the number of gas giant planet candidates orbiting at habitable zone distances," the paper stated.

Planet Hunters includes participation from Oxford, Yale and several other institutions. Volunteers pour over data from Kepler. Once the strongest candidates are identified, professional astronomers take a look at them.

Planet Hunters has found 48 candidate planets so far. The first confirmed planet, PH1, was revealed in October 2011.

To learn how to participate in the Planet Hunters project, visit: http://www.planethunters.org/

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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