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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little …. Planet

Athena Sullins, Staff Writer

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Alien hunters, space junkies, and casual fans alike waited on the edges of their seats during the afternoon of December 14th, eager to witness NASA’s unveiling of a recent planetary discovery. Earlier, NASA had announced that its space telescope Kepler, a craft created to search out far-off planets, had uncovered some exciting new information. By analyzing the fluctuation of brightness in planetary objects as they pass in front of their host stars, Kepler is able to identify distant worlds. In operation since 2009, Kepler has successfully identified over 2,500 exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system). This amounts to 70% of all exoplanet discoveries. Kepler’s findings have revealed invaluable information on the commonality of exoplanets, so much so that many scientists believe there is at least one planet in orbit around every star in the sky.

As usual, speculation was rampant before the unveiling of the discovery. Rumors of NASA finally making contact with extraterrestrial life abounded on social media. Others awaited confirmation of a functioning biological ecosystem on a distant planet. The discovery’s reveal was not quite as drastic. However it was still exciting, providing vital groundwork for finding these long-anticipated alien worlds.

Using machine learning techniques (the process of teaching computers to “think”) by Google Artificial Intelligence, computers were able to search through archival data from the Kepler telescope, uncovering an eighth planet orbiting the star Kepler-90 which resides in the Draco constellation and is 2,545 light years from Earth. This planet, named Kepler-90i, is a particularly fascinating discovery as it is part of a star system that has as many planets as our own solar system, all orbiting a Sun-like star.

The Kepler-90 star system, however, is more tightly “scrunched” together, as Andrew Vanderburg, astronomer and Kepler project scientist, said at the December 14th briefing. The largest orbit in the system is roughly the same distance as Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

The newfound planet is inhospitable and is small, hot, and rocky. Its surface temperatures surpass 800 degrees Fahrenheit!

This discovery opens up countless opportunities in the search for habitable planets, and the new technology being developed to find them is very promising. Using machine learning techniques and modern exoplanet-hunting telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (launching this year), a breakthrough is bound to happen. Kepler’s legacy is only the launchpad for potential findings.

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little …. Planet