NASA Announces the Discovery of 1,284 New Exoplanets (and 9 That Might Support Life)
Image credit: NASA, ESA
Fans of the Drake Equation can rejoice, because NASA just announced that the Kepler spacecraft, which has been scanning the stars to find more exoplanets, has discovered 1,284 new planets, which NASA calls "the single largest finding of planets to date." Among these hundreds of planets, about 550 of them appear to be rocky planets similar to Earth, and a precious 9 orbit their stars at just the right distance to have liquid water on their surface—meaning that they might support life.
It's important to note that NASA's rules for what defines a 'planet' are incredibly exacting. The 1,284 newly discovered exoplanets were only announced as such after being identified with 99% confidence, but as NASA admits, that leaves out 1,327 other likely exoplanets that couldn't reach that 99% certainty. According to Natalie Batalha, the Kepler mission scientist at NASA:
"They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet). This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets—a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds."
Even more remarkable than the sheer number of planets discovered is the method by which Kepler discovered them. Instead of directly spotting individual planets and identifying them with something like high-powered optics, Kepler watches for 'transits'. According to NASA's description of the process:
"When a planet passes in front of a star as viewed from Earth, the event is called a "transit". On Earth, we can observe an occasional Venus or Mercury transit. These events are seen as a small black dot creeping across the Sun-Venus or Mercury blocks sunlight as the planet moves between the Sun and us. Kepler finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the brightness of a star when a planet crosses in front of it-we say the planet transits the star."
As it stands, there are currently 3,200 verified exoplanets on our star maps, with 21 of those potentially supporting life. But NASA isn't just sitting on all this info—as Natalie Batalha said, the discoveries Kepler is making will make our search for 'living worlds' easier. It's one thing for Elon Musk to talk about terraforming Mars using nuclear weapons and colonizing the resulting radioactive surface, but it's another to send a crew, perhaps in cryogenic stasis, to a verdant alien world not so different from Earth, where they can lay the groundwork for a human colony that will give them all a fresh start. Where have we heard that before?
Oh, Alien: Covenant.