A record-tying eighth planet has been found in a faraway solar system, matching our own in numbers.
Even more amazing, machines and not humans made the discovery. NASA joined with Google on Thursday to announce the finding.
This eighth planet orbits the star known as Kepler-90, some 2,545 light-years away.
Like Earth, this new planet, Kepler-90i, is the third rock from its sun. But it’s much closer to its sun – orbiting in just 14 days – and therefore a scorching 427 degrees Celsius at the surface. In fact, all eight planets are scrunched up around this star, orbiting closer than Earth does to our sun.
This is the only eight-planet solar system found like ours – so far – tying for the most planets observed around a single star. Our solar system had nine planets until Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, a decision that still stands.
Google used data collected by NASA’s planet hunter, the Kepler Space Telescope, to develop its machine-learning computer program. It focuses on weak planetary signals – so feeble and numerous it would take humans ages to examine.
While machine learning has been used before in the search for planets beyond our solar system, it’s believed to be the first time an artificial neural network like this has been used to find a new world.
“This is a really exciting discovery, and we consider it to be a successful proof of concept to be using neural networks to identify planets, even in challenging situations where the signals are very weak,” said Christopher Shallue, senior software engineer at Google in Mountain View, California.
Neither NASA nor Google expect to put astronomers out of business.
Shallue sees this as a tool to help astronomers have more impact and increase their productivity.
“It certainly will not replace them at all,” he told reporters.