WASHINGTON POST – NASA scientists announced 1,284 new exoplanets at a news conference on Tuesday — candidates found by the Kepler Space Telescope that have now been confirmed with 99 percent certainty.
This is the largest dump of new planet discoveries in history, and it more than doubles the count of confirmed planets for the intrepid space telescope.
On Monday, earthlings watched as Mercury passed between our planet and the sun, all three celestial bodies lining up in just the right way for Mercury to appear as a small black dot creeping over our bright host star. That phenomenon — one planet passing in front of its star, from the visual perspective of another planet — is known as a “transit.” And that’s how Kepler finds new, alien worlds.
Kepler (which is technically broken, but still finds new planets in its second life as “K2”) tracks the subtle dimming of distant stars to detect possible planets that orbit them. It’s our best method for detecting exoplanets, even though it can only hunt down worlds that are set up to “transit” from Earth’s perspective.
Even though the data collection of the K1 mission is over, scientists are still working on parsing out the primary mission’s data. They have to weed out false positives from the thousands of potential planets — star dimming actually caused by mischievous companion stars or other objects:
In a paper published Tuesday in the Astrophysical Journal, a team led by Princeton University’s Timothy Morton presents a new statistical method for calculating the likelihood that a given candidate is, in fact, a planet. Their analysis yielded 1,284 confirmations. Another 1,327 planets from the Kepler catalogue are almost certainly planets, according to the researchers, but these worlds don’t reach the 99 percent probability threshold — so more study will be needed to adequately confirm their existence. The other 707 potential worlds are likely nonexistent, according to the analysis.