NASA’s Kepler mission ended in 2018 after more than nine years of fruitful planet-hunting. The space telescope discovered thousands of planets, many of which bear its name. But it also generated an enormous amount of data that exoplanet scientists are still analyzing.
Now, a team of researchers has shed new light on a seven-planet system in Kepler’s ocean of data.
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft ended its observations in October 2018 after nine and a half years, a solid six years beyond its planned duration. It discovered 2,711 confirmed exoplanets and another 2,056 exoplanet candidates as of August 2022.
Now, astronomers at MIT and the University of Wisconsin uncovered three more exoplanets in the data from Kepler’s final days of observations. They needed the help of dedicated amateurs to do it.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of researchers from the University of Florida (UF) examine orbital eccentricities for exoplanets orbiting red dwarf (M dwarf) stars and determined that one-third of them—which encompass hundreds of millions throughout the Milky Way—could exist within their star’s habitable zone (HZ), which is that approximate distance from their star where liquid water can exist on the surface. The researchers determined the remaining two-thirds of exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs are too hot for liquid water to exist on their surfaces due to tidal extremes, resulting in a sterilization of the planetary surface.
Today, the number of confirmed exoplanets stands at 5,197 in 3,888 planetary systems, with another 8,992 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority have been particularly massive planets, ranging from Jupiter and Neptune-sized gas giants, which have radii about 2.5 times that of Earth. Another statistically significant population has been rocky planets that measure about 1.4 Earth radii (aka. “Super-Earths”). This presents a mystery to astronomers, especially where the exoplanets discovered by the venerable Kepler Space Telescope are concerned.
Of the more than 2,600 planets Kepler discovered, there’s an apparent rarity of exoplanets with a radius of about 1.8 times that of Earth – which they refer to as the “radius valley.” A second mystery, known as “peas in a pod,” refers to neighboring planets of similar size found in hundreds of planetary systems with harmonious orbits. In a study led by the Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets (CLEVER) project at Rice University, an international team of astrophysicists provide a new model that accounts for the interplay of forces acting on newborn planets that could explain these two mysteries.
NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft was deactivated in November 2018, about ten years after it launched. The mission detected over 5,000 candidate exoplanets and 2,662 confirmed exoplanets using the transit method. But scientists are still working with all of Kepler’s data, hoping to uncover more planets in the observations.
A team of researchers have announced the discovery of one more planet in the Kepler data, and this one is nearly a twin of Jupiter.
Looking to the future, astronomers are excited to see how machine learning – aka. deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) – will enhance surveys. One field that is already benefitting in the search for extrasolar planets, where researchers rely on machine-learning algorithms to distinguish between faint signals and background noise. As this field continues to transition from discovery to characterization, the role of machine intelligence is likely to become even more critical.
Take the KeplerSpace Telescope, which accounted for 2879 confirmed discoveries (out of the 4,575 exoplanets discovered made to date) during its nearly ten years of service. After examining the data collected by Kepler using a new deep-learning neural network called ExoMiner, a research team at NASA’s Ames Research Center was able to detect 301 more planetary signals and add them to the growing census of exoplanets.
200 light years away, “super earth” exoplanet K2-141b orbits a star so closely that its “year” is only 7 hours long. Not its day…its YEAR! K2-141b orbits a mere million kilometers from the fiery surface of its star. Earth is 150 million km from our Sun. Even Mercury, the planet closest to our Sun, is never less than 47 million km. Standing on the surface of K2-141b you’d look up at an orange star that filled fifty degrees of the sky appearing a hundred times wider than our Sun appears in Earth’s sky. It would be a giant blazing orb so bright that its light shines two thirds of the way around the entire planet unlike Earth’s two day/night halves. Of course, the surface you’re standing on wouldn’t be much of a surface at all – it would be an ocean of liquid hot magma.
REMINDER: – Universe Today will be hosting an interview with Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, co-author of the research featured in this article, on Thursday October 15th, 2020 at 8:30am PT. Click the video below to watch live or to see the recorded stream afterward
Out Earthing Earth
What planet is this?
If you said Hoth, that’s a good guess. But, it’s actually Earth depicted in one of two known “snowball” states. The entire planet’s surface was locked beneath glacial ice during the Cryogenian Period 650 million years ago and during the Huronian Glaciation 2 – 2.4 billion years ago.
It’s amazing to think there are telescopes up in space, right now, directing their gaze at distant objects for hours, days and even weeks. Providing a point of view so stable and accurate that we can learn details about galaxies, exoplanets and more.
And then, when the time is up, the spacecraft can shift its gaze in another direction. All without the use of fuel.