There’s been a lot of news about planets lately.
Over the past 9 months, over 160 exoplanets – or planets outside of our solar system – have been found. Those discoveries include a diamond planet, an invisible one, and another darker than the blackest coal. That surpasses figures from 2010, where 110 exoplanets were confirmed.
This week, the number of known exoplanets increased tremendously. Over 80 were confirmed, according to scientists in several worldwide organizations. This increase in planetary discovery certainly had to do with the second Extreme Solar Systems conference. The six-day event, which took place Sept. 11 to 17, brought together hundreds of exoplanet researchers and enthusiasts.
On the second day of the conference, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) came out with a huge discovery. It had found 50 exoplanets, including one in the “Goldilocks” – or habitable – zone. That means life could be supported on that planet. Also, among the 50 included 16 “Super-Earths,” or planets whose mass is one to 10 times that of Earth.
Big. Very big.
The ESO certainly started the week off with a bang. The discovery was due to the HARPS system, a spectrograph on one of the world’s largest telescopes. Since it began planet hunting in 2003, HARPS has help find 150 planets.
“How is anyone going to top that announcement,” I thought.
The next day, UK astronomers from the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) team announced that it had found 23 gas giants, or planets much like our Jupiter.
Ok. Nice showing. But what, or who, is WASP? Does it even matter? 23 isn’t going to beat 50.
So we waited for NASA. What did it have up its sleeve? NASA sent out a press release that indicated there was going to be an exoplanet announcement with the Lucas Film guys. Hmmm? Lucas Films? What is going on? (NASA also announced that it had come up with a plan for deeper, manned space travel, i.e. Mars, asteroids.)
I certainly didn’t think NASA was going to announce that it had found Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. The planet, called Kepler-16b, is the most "Tatooine-like" planet yet found in our galaxy and is depicted here in this artist's concept with its two stars. Tatooine is the name of Luke Skywalker's home world in the science fiction movie Star Wars. In this case, the planet it not thought to be habitable. It is a cold world, with a gaseous surface, but like Tatooine, it circles two stars.
Ok, not the real Tatooine, but a planet called Kepler 16-b that orbits two stars. The discovery was due to the Kepler mission, which has been planet hunting since 2009. It has helped confirm 21 planets and identified over 1,200 planetary candidates.
I think Kepler might have beaten HARPS.
You’re putting Star Wars against something we can’t really envision. Sure, we can see the illustrations, but it’s not the same.
No matter who came out on top this week, the fascinating thing is that the discoveries made a lot of people talk about science. With this week’s additions, there are now 684 confirmed planets outside of our solar system. How cool is that?
We’re living in interesting times, my friends. I can’t wait to see what they find next.