NASA has added hundreds of new confirmed exoplanets to the list of known worlds in deep space, greatly increasing the number of distant planets we know about.
The total number of new confirmed exoplanets is 301, greatly increasing the total number of 4,569 planets already discovered by scientists.
The reason so many exoplanets-so called worlds outside the solar system-have been confirmed at once is because of a computer program specifically designed to detect them.
When people discover what they think may be an exoplanet, work must be done to confirm its existence. The signal they spot may not be a new planet at all, but a “false positive” in the data.
And there is a lot of data. NASA spacecraft such as Kepler, designed to search for planets by star, can have thousands of stars in their field of view at any given time, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Studying the data on each of them takes a huge amount of time.
To solve this problem, the researchers used ExoMiner, a program that runs on NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer. The program is able to determine what is a planet and what is not.
NASA scientists and several university researchers used ExoMiner to work with data from an archive of possible but unconfirmed exoplanets. 301 new worlds were confirmed as a result of ExoMiner’s artificial intelligence checks.
Hamed Valizadegan, ExoMiner project manager and manager of machine learning for the University Space Research Association at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in a press release, “When ExoMiner says something is a planet, you can be sure it’s a planet.”
“ExoMiner is very accurate and in some ways more reliable than the existing machine classifiers and human experts it is designed to mimic because there is no bias associated with human assessments.”
ExoMiner’s discoveries were outlined in a study accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal on Monday.
Scientists can detect distant planets using a variety of methods. Currently, the most popular method is transit photometry, or simply the transit method, in which astronomers use telescopes to observe stars and see if they dim regularly over time.
If so, it’s a sign that there may be a planet orbiting the star that temporarily blocks some of its light as it passes in front of it.
Other methods include the radial velocity method, by which scientists measure the oscillation of a star caused by a planet orbiting it; microlensing, by which astronomers measure how much of a star’s light is deflected by the gravity of a nearby planet; and direct imaging, in which a photograph of a planet is taken. Direct imaging is difficult, and only just over one percent of exoplanets have been confirmed this way.
None of the newly discovered planets resemble Earth, JPL noted. Indeed, the vast majority of exoplanets we know are gas giants or gas planets the size of Neptune.
However, a small fraction of them are thought to have a rocky structure, like Earth.