NASA's Kepler mission hits interstellar pay dirt with the discovery of 715 new planets. Well, new to humans, anyway.
While for the past two decades scientists have had to use an arduous planet to planet verification process, they now have a new tool in their research arsenal that will blow the roof off of future planetary discoveries. The new technique, called verification by multiplicity, was used by the team co-led by Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
Lissauer and his team used verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability, to analyze stars with more than one potential planet. Since the first planets were discovered outside of our own solar system two decades ago, only about 1000 have been verified. However, with this new technique Lessauer and his team were able to analyze the hundreds of stars with the multi-planet potential and through careful study of the sample verify the 715 planets.
” Four years ago Kepler began a string of announcements, of first hundreds, then thousands of planet candidates -but they were only candidate worlds,” said Lessauer. “We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.”
The next step in the process is to determine if any of these new planets, 95% of which are smaller than Neptune, might be habitable. Four of the new planets are roughly 2 and a half times the size of Earth, but they do fall into their own stars habitable zone, the range of distance from a star that would allow the surface temperature to sustain life giving water, sometimes referred to as the Goldy Locks Zone.
“The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results,” John Grunsfield, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator in Washington, commented, adding ”That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.”
The James Webb Space Telescope Grunsfield mentions is part of the next generation in exoplanetary exploration that will kick off with the Google funded, MIT brained TESS (Transiting, Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which was tapped by NASA to launch in 2017. TESS will be on a two year mission to investigate an estimated 500,000 stars with the potential to discover up to 10,000 planetary candidates. TESS may also have the ability to detect, in detail, even the atmospheres of some of the closer planetary candidates. The MIT development team speculates that the first interstellar missions may well be planets discovered by TESS. The James Webb telescope will join TESS in 2018 and take up some heavy lifting of its own. Designed to investigate the deepest questions of humanity, like where did we come from and how did we get here?
An international effort funded by NASA, European Space Agency (ESA),and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), it is truly a project for humanity. Like the Hubble Satellite, the James Webb will peer deep into the vastness of space, providing not only stunning images, but information that may help to unlock the history of our universe, our solar system and the future of our planet. Using four science instruments contained within the Integrated Science Instrument Module, or ISIM.
Given the recent success of the Kepler project, there is little doubt that the future of interstellar planetary research will continue to seek out new worlds, and with the human curiosity that leads to the willingness to explore even the most lifeless of planetary bodies, it can’t be too far off that we will finally boldly go.