706 candidates for potential alien worlds while gazing at more than 156,000 stars packed into a single patch of the sky.

If all 706 of these objects pass the stringent follow-up tests to determine if they are actually planets, and not false alarms, they could nearly triple the current number of known extrasolar planets. They were announced as part of a huge release of data from the mission's first 43 days by NASA's Kepler science team this week.

The Kepler space observatory monitors stars for subtle changes in their brightness, which could indicate the presence of alien planets passing in front of them as seen from Earth. Astronomers will use the newly-released data from Kepler to determine if orbiting planets are responsible for the variation in brightness of several hundred stars.

"This is the most precise, nearly continuous, longest and largest data set of stellar photometry ever," said David Koch, the mission's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., in a statement. "The results will only get better as the duration of the data set grows with time."

By measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross – or transit – in front of them, astronomers can determine the size of the planet.

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