The universe is such a vast place that it boggles the mind to think about it too much. Theoretically, it could just go on forever and ever, because how could it even end? It’s not like there would be an impenetrable wall with a sign hanging down stating “End of the Universe” in bold lettering. Although who knows? Maybe there is. The fact is that there’s just so much we don’t know about the cosmos and our place in it.
Kepler Spacecraft Discovered Exoplanets
This week, however, researchers on NASA’s Kepler mission made our intergalactic portrait a little clearer with the landmark astronomical announcement of the discovery of 1,284 new planets. Launched in 2009 into an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, the Kepler spacecraft is designed to look at the Milky Way to seek out Earth-size exoplanets in or near habitable zones. Using a photometer to measure the brightness of over 145,000 stars, the Kepler mission transmits this data back to Earth for researchers to analyze any light dimming that would occur if an unknown planet crossed in front of one of the stars.
This new discovery is a pretty monumental one, as Kepler researchers usually only announce one confirmed new planet at a time, as there is so much data to sort through. In this case, however, new software was implemented that allowed scientists to sort out signals from noise in the numerous potential planets. It also was able to account for any flaws that may occur in the Kepler telescope’s imaging process, as well as stars that may be giving out a false transit signals. And since a lot of human work hours are usually spent sorting through the numerous candidates for planets to determine which ones are actually legitimate, this new software is able to do that all at once.
And what are these new planets exactly? Most of them are considered to be “mini-Neptunes”, meaning they’re at the lower limits of gas giant size. But some of the new discoveries are indeed Earth-sized or even super-Earths. With a similar cycle to our own planet, who knows what kinds of habitats are actually going on there?
So where the catalogue of confirmed planets numbered 1,041 before, this new discovery more than doubles that list, showing in rapid fashion just how large our universe is. And this is just the beginning, since there are more than 3,000 potential planets in the data from Kepler that still needs to be sorted through. Additionally, with a couple of next generation planet finding missions planned to be launched in the near future, we’re only going to get closer and closer to other worlds.
Source: Astronomy Magazine