PASADENA ( — One of NASA’s orbiting telescopes, tasked with identifying planets similar to Earth outside the Milky Way, is reporting promising results.

NASA’s Kepler telescope, which has been scanning deep space in search of Earth-like worlds since its launch into orbit in 2009, has spotted around 3,600 planetary candidates outside the solar system,  a deputy project scientist for Kepler at JPL said Monday.

Of that number, 237 have been confirmed as planets, which brings the total number of so-called exo-planets to over 1,000, according to Nick Gautier.

However, as Gautier describes that number as conservative, some astronomers believe that more exo-planets have been confirmed.

“More than three-quarters of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have sizes ranging from that of Earth to that of Neptune, which is nearly four times as big as Earth,” a statement from Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. “Such planets dominate the galactic census, but are not represented in our own solar system.”

Scientists are pondering how these planets form and whether they are composed of gases, water or rock.

Recent findings include five rocky planets that are 10 percent to 80 percent greater in size than Earth. A pair of them — dubbed Kepler-99b and Kepler-406b — are 40 percent larger than Earth, and reportedly have a density similar to lead, according to JPL. Both planets, however, orbit their respective stars in less than a week, indicating that they are too hot to support life similar to Earth.

The mission of the Kepler space telescope, which was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on March 6, 2009, is to scan more than 150,000 stars for evidence of possibly inhabitable planets. The discovery of extrasolar worlds presents a daunting task, as light from the stars, orbited by the planets, swamps the planets’ reflected light.

The spacecraft carries a 0.95-meter-diameter telescope, called a photometer. Scientists use the photometer to detect the telltale, but almost imperceptible, dimming of a star. This indicates that a planet has passed directly in front of it.

Kepler’s telescope has “a very large field of view” to work with, which allows astronomers to simultaneously monitor the brightness of over 150,000 stars for the duration of its mission.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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