NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star, the agency announced Thursday.
Kepler-452b is the smallest planet discovered orbiting in the habitable zone, according to NASA. The habitable zone refers to the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.
In a statement, NASA said that the confirmation of Kepler-452b brings the total number of confirmed planets to 1,030.
"We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who led the discovery team. "It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”
The planet, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter than Earth, is located in the constellation Cygnus, about 1,400 light years away. Scientists have yet to determine its mass and composition, although previous research of similar-sized planets indicates that it could be rocky.
NASA's Kepler spacecraft was launched in 2009. The mission's objective is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems.
Ground-based observations at the University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, and the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii were used to confirm the Kepler space observatory's research into the Kepler-452 system.
Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, a non-profit organization that aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars, told FoxNews.com that Kepler-452b is an important stepping stone in a series of discoveries.
"The Kepler announcement was inevitable and we should expect many more similar discoveries over the upcoming years," he explained, in an email. "As our capabilities improve, it's entirely possible that we could discover a habitable planet that can (or does) sustain life - I can't even imagine the discoveries that will be made in the next decade."
Thursday's news caps an exciting few weeks for NASA. The agency's New Horizons spacecraft made a historic flyby of dwarf planet Pluto last week.