Researchers have always believed that the Milky Way is home to billions of planets. And the quest to find all the planets is endless. But in this process to uncover all of them, over 300 discoveries of planets were recently added to NASA’s official list. The scale of outer space is quite difficult to comprehend as the Solar System has a diameter of around 287.46 billion kilometers and is home to eight planets (including Earth).
That may sound like a lot on its own, but our Solar System is an impossible speck when it is compared to the entirety of the universe, and also when it is even compared to the Milky Way. It is known that the Milky Way (our home galaxy) is home to 100 thousand million stars and at least 100 billion planets and from there, the Milky Way is just one galaxy amidst a sea of hundreds of billions in the known universe. This type of scale is incredibly difficult to comprehend, but it’s something scientists and astronomers are constantly trying to develop for a better understanding of this topic.
This is what makes this latest announcement from NASA so exciting for everyone out there. To date, NASA has discovered 4,569 planets outside of our Solar System but within the Milky Way (also known as ‘exoplanets’). On November 22, NASA made a confirmation that NASA just added 301 new exoplanets to that list all at once. It’s an achievement that sounds much impossible, but it was pulled off successfully. All thanks to advanced neural network technology straight out of science fiction.
NASA scientists have developed a few methods to find exoplanets, one of which revolves around studying stars. If a star dims slightly while being observed, there’s a possibility that a planet is orbiting it, and it’s a proven method for determining a potential planet’s size and orbit, but the sheer number of possible stars to study is too much for humans which is very hard to do alone. And this is where NASA’s ‘ExoMiner’ program comes into play.
Wondering what it is? Let us tell you. ExoMiner is a deep neural network which is created by NASA to look at potential exoplanet data and determine if they’re real or false positives. By using some proven methods for discovery, ExoMiner was trained and “properties human experts use to confirm new exoplanets.” It takes the information, gets smarter by reviewing previously confirmed exoplanets. Then it uses all of that information to identify new ones at a rate, which is impossible for a single human that he could ever match. Using ExoMiner along with people who are “pros at combing through data and deciphering what is and isn’t a planet,” NASA was able to discover 300+ planets like it was nothing. Discovering more than 300+ planets at a time is something unexpected yet such a great achievement. All of the 301 exoplanets confirmed by ExoMiner were first discovered by Keppler and also by its K2 follow-up mission. The planets were all classified to ‘candidate status,’ but until ExoMiner came along, NASA didn’t have the reports to confirm whether or not they were planets.
This is exciting for a lot of reasons. In this case of the latest discovery, confirming new 301 planets in one swoop is a huge achievement. Well, it may be a small dent in uncovering the billions of planets believed to exist in our galaxy, but indeed it’s a bigger step forward than NASA’s ever taken before, and that’s also what makes the future of ExoMiner so thrilling. With these 301 planets confirmed, NASA can further train ExoMiner so that it can also work on other discovery missions. After finding planets with Kepler data, the next plan is to train ExoMiner in such a way that it can work with TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) so that it can confirm potential exoplanets it finds. With each new planet giving scientists a better understanding of the galaxy we live in, the possibilities of ExoMiner are pretty jaw-dropping for sure.