Eight planets found orbiting distant star, NASA says

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For the first time, eight planets have been found orbiting a distant star, Kepler-90, 2,545 light-years from Earth in the Draco constellation, NASA announced Thursday, December 14, 2017. Credit: NASA/ Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel

For the first time, eight planets have been found orbiting a distant star, Kepler-90, 2,545 light-years from Earth in the Draco constellation, NASA announced Thursday. It is the first star known to support as many planets as are orbiting our own sun, and researchers believe that this is the first of many to come.

Researchers had known that seven planets were orbiting the star. But Google Artificial Intelligence which enables computers to “learn” looked at archival data obtained by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope and uncovered the eighth planet.

Christopher Shallue, senior software engineer at Google AI in California, and Andrew Vanderburg, astronomer and NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas, Austin, trained a computer how to differentiate between images of cats and dogs. They refined their approach to identify exoplanets in Kepler data based on the change in light when a planet passed in front of its star.

“The Kepler-90 star system is like a mini version of our solar system. You have small planets inside and big planets outside, but everything is scrunched in much closer,” Vanderburg said.

The new planet has been dubbed Kepler-90i. It’s not a hospitable environment. It’s “sizzling” hot and rocky, whirling around its star every 14.4 days.

“Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

Researchers also announced that they had uncovered a sixth planet in the Kepler-80 system, Kepler-80g, which is similar in size to Earth. The Kepler-80 system is stable, as the previously discovered seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system has proven to be.