Instead, we're in a tie—with a star system nearly 15 quadrillion miles from Earth. At a Thursday news conference, NASA scientists—with an assist from Google's artificial intelligence team—announced the discovery of an eighth planet orbiting the Sun ...
Bill Retherford , Contributor Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Artist's impression of the Kepler Space Telescope.
Our solar system, with its eight planets, is no longer the biggest kid on the celestial block.
Instead, we’re in a tie—with a star system nearly 15 quadrillion miles from Earth.
At a Thursday news conference, NASA scientists—with an assist from Google's artificial intelligence team—announced the discovery of an eighth planet orbiting the Sun-like star Kepler-90.
“It's the first star known to host as many planets as our own solar system,” says Christopher Shallue, a Google senior software engineer.
Like Earth, the newly-discovered world—Kepler-90i—is the third planet out, relatively small, decidedly rocky, and holding an atmosphere.
But its similarities to Earth end there.
“It’s not a place I’d like to go visit,” says Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin. The planet's surface, "scorching hot," is about 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA had already discovered the system’s seven other worlds in 2013, using the Kepler Space Telescope. The two innermost planets are slightly larger than Earth; the two outermost are gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn. The remaining three, just beyond Kepler-90i and in the system's middle, are near the size of Neptune.
Credits: NASA / Ames Research Center / Wendy Stenzel
A comparison of the Kepler-90 planets to our solar system.
The planets, crammed in space, are “scrunched very close to their star,” says Vanderburg. All eight are closer to Kepler-90 than the Earth is to the Sun. So close that Kepler-90i, for example, makes one revolution in just 14 days.
Yet for NASA scientists, it’s not so much what they found, but how they found it—through “machine learning.”
Engineers at the tech giant Google, teaming with the space agency, developed a neural network that learned to pick out hidden planets like Kepler-90i, once buried deep within the data of the Kepler telescope.
Says Shallue: "Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can't search it for themselves.”
Indeed, the Kepler mission, which began in 2009, has surveyed about 150 thousand stars, collecting a daunting assortment of data.
“It's impossible for scientists to examine it all manually,” says Shallue. The process, he says, “is like looking for needles in a haystack.”
But the neural network, after analyzing 15,000 Kepler signals, quickly learned to distinguish patterns in the data—and now knows if a signal is false, or an actual planet.
It works “even if the signal is weak,” Shallue says—like the signal from Kepler-90i, “missed in all previous searches.”
Google now plans to refine the network, then use it to examine the entire Kepler catalog.
“We hope we’ll be able to find lots of new planets," says Shallue, "including planets similar to the Earth."
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