It’s Dimming! Astronomers Jump At Opportunity To Solve The Mystery Of Tabby’s Star

“Perhaps, as many suggested, this was evidence of an alien megastructure being constructed? But another astrophysical scenario could explain it: a recently devoured planet. Gases would dim the star overall, while outbursts and flares create irregular flux dips.”

Earlier this decade, the Kepler mission became the most successful planet-finding endeavor of all time, turning up thousands of new worlds by measuring the transit data of some 150,000 stars. When planets passed in front of their parent star, they blocked a tiny fraction of their light, leaving behind an imprint of a periodic dimming signal. But one star dims differently from all the others. KIC 8462852, known as Tabby’s star, has irregular dips of up to 20% in brightness, equivalent to ten times the effect of all the Solar System’s planets combined. What could be causing this? While a few astronomers have proposed alien megastructures, another, simpler explanation might explain it all: a recently devoured planet.

As a new dimming event is underway, astronomers hope to collect enough quality observations to validate or disfavor all the ideas bouncing around. Find out more today!

Exoplanets: Strange New Worlds

Super Saturn

Around a distant star 420 light years away is a planet with such huge rings that they’re 200 times larger than the rings of Saturn, J1407b. The rings are about 74,560,000 miles in diameter and contain about as much mass as Earth itself. Gaps in the rings, like we see in Saturn’s rings, are likely created by exomoons orbiting around the planet, clearing out paths between the rings and keeping them distinct.

(Image credit: Ron Miller)

The Planet of Burning Ice

The most remarkable things happen when you push physics to extremes.

Far away in the Gliese star system is a Neptune-sized planet called Gliese 436 b. This world is covered in ice that burns constantly at 822.2˚ Fahrenheit (439˚ C).

The reason why the water doesn’t liquify and then turn into steam is due to the massive gravity of the planet - it exerts so much force on the water that the atoms are bound tightly together as a solid: burning ice.

(Image credit: ABC Science)

The Diamond Planet

At about 7.8 times the mass of Earth, 55 Cancri e is an extremely carbon-rich planet orbiting a carbon-rich star. The intense density of the planet means that about 2/3rds of this planet’s core is made up of diamond. It’s literally a giant diamond (larger than Earth).

(Image credit: CfA)


Hd 188753 Ab is a planet candidate with three suns. That’s more than even Luke Skywalker got! It turns out that binary star systems are actually quite common, however, and there are many worlds out there where the sunsets would happen twice (or more) a day. Maybe one day a lucky couple will sit beneath a pair of setting suns, holding hands as each star dips below the alien horizon.

(Image credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Kepler Mission)

The Water World (Miller’s Planet?)

GJ 1214b is 42 light years away from Earth. It’s 25% rock surrounded by 75% water. Its surface is an endless ocean not too dissimilar from what you’d see floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean on Earth.

As you go deeper below the surface though, you’d eventually hit ice. The water surrounding the core isn’t ice because of temperature though: the pressure of the water above it is so intense that it crushes the water below from a liquid into a solid form known as “ice VII”.

(Image credit: Found on Kurir)

Earth 2.0

Kepler-438b orbits a star 470 light years away. It receives a similar amount of energy from its sun as does Earth. Its surface temperature is perfect for liquid water. 

On the Earth Similarity Index it’s received a 0.88, the highest score of any world (except of course Earth). Liquid water almost certainly exists there and with it, the best chance for alien life.

This is the sort of planet that makes me wonder when I look up at the stars, if somewhere far away, there isn’t someone looking back.

(Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

What is a Exoplanet?

Exoplanets are the planets orbiting around stars other than our Sun. There are 2000+ confirmed exoplanets found in the known Universe. According to astronomers there can be trillions of exoplanets in our Galaxy.

Following are some amazing facts about exoplanets:

Keep reading


The Scientific Truth About Planet Nine, So Far

“The most surprising results from the Kepler mission was that the overwhelming majority of planets in the Universe were not small, rocky worlds like Earth or Mars, nor large, gas giant worlds like Neptune or Jupiter, but rather in-between worlds, collectively classified as Super-Earths. Ever since that discovery, astronomers have wondered why there simply aren’t any of those worlds in our Solar System. If the Planet Nine hypothesis is right, then there actually is one, and this is the best season for finding it!”

In January of last year, astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown shocked the world by proposing that there was a world larger than Earth located some five-to-ten times as distant as Neptune. That this world — known as Planet Nine — was causing the ultra-distant Kuiper belt objects we’d discovered so far to all have predicable, peculiar properties. And the observations matched up really well. But in science, post-dictions aren’t enough. You need to make new predictions for objects you can then go out and measure, and see how they line up. In the case of Planet Nine, there are four pieces of indirect evidence that can be measured, and one piece of direct evidence that will settle the issue once and for all: actually locating Planet Nine.

The indirect evidence looks good, and we’re fast approaching the best season for hunting Planet Nine. Come get the status update today! 

New 'styrofoam' planet provides tools in search for habitable planets

Fifth-graders making styrofoam solar system models may have the right idea. Researchers at Lehigh University have discovered a new planet orbiting a star 320 light years from Earth that has the density of styrofoam. This “puffy planet” outside our solar system may hold opportunities for testing atmospheres that will be useful when assessing future planets for signs of life.

“It is highly inflated, so that while it’s only a fifth as massive as Jupiter, it is nearly 40 percent larger, making it about as dense as styrofoam, with an extraordinarily large atmosphere,” said Joshua Pepper, astronomer and assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University, who led the study in collaboration with researchers from Vanderbilt University and Ohio State University, along with researchers at universities and observatories and amateur astronomers around the world.

Keep reading

2016: This Year at NASA!

As 2016 comes to a close and prospects of the new year loom before us, we take a moment to look back at what we’ve accomplished and how it will set us ahead in the year to come.

2016 marked record-breaking progress in our exploration activities. We advanced the capabilities needed to travel farther into the solar system while increasing observations of our home and the universe, learning more about how to continuously live and work in space and, or course, inspiring the next generation of leaders to take up our journey to Mars and make their own discoveries.

Here are a few of the top NASA stories of 2016…

International Space Station

One Year Mission…completed!

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth after spending a year in space. Testing the limits of human research, findings from their One Year Mission will help send humans farther into space than ever before.

Commercial Resupply

Commercial partners Orbital ATK and SpaceX delivered tons (yes literally tons) of cargo to the International Space Station. This cargo supported hundreds of science experiments and technology demonstrations crucial to our journey to Mars.


Expandable Habitats

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was one of the technology demonstrations delivered to the space station in April. Expandable habitats greatly decrease the amount of transport volume for future space missions.

Booster Test Firing

In June, a booster for our Space Launch System (SLS) rocket successfully fired up. It will be used on the first un-crewed test flight of SLS with the Orion spacecraft in 2018. Eventually, this rocket and capsule will carry humans into deep space and one day…Mars!


This year we updated the milestones for our InSight mission with a new target launch window beginning in May 2018. This mission will place a fixed science outpost on Mars to study its deep interior. Findings and research from this project will address one of the most fundamental questions we have about the planetary and solar system science…how in the world did these rocky planets form?

Solar System and Beyond


On July 4, our Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter. This mission is working to improve our understanding of the solar system’s beginnings by revealing the origin and evolution of Jupiter.


In September, we launched our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft…which is America’s first-ever asteroid sample return mission. This spacecraft will travel to a near-Earth asteroid, called Bennu, where it will collect a sample to bring back to Earth for study.

James Webb Space Telescope

In February, the final primary mirror segment of our James Webb Space Telescope was installed. This will be the world’s most powerful space telescope ever, and is scheduled to launch in 2018. Webb will look back in time, studying the very first galaxies ever formed.


In May, our Kepler mission verified the discovery of 1,284 new planets. Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitably Earth-sized planets.

Earth Right Now

Earth Expeditions

Our efforts to improve life on Earth included an announcement in March of a collection of Earth Science field campaigns to study how our planet is changing. These Earth Expeditions sent scientists to places like the edge of the Greenland ice sheet to the coral reefs of the South Pacific to delve into challenging questions about how our planet is changing…and what impacts humans are having on it.

Small Satellites

In November, we announced plans to launch six next-generation Earth-observing small satellite missions. One uses GPS signals to measure wind in hurricanes and tropical systems in greater detail than ever before.

Aeronautics Research

Our efforts in 2016 to make air travel cleaner, safer and quieter included new technology to improve safety and efficiency of aircraft arrivals, departures and service operations.


In June, we highlighted our first designation of an experimental airplane, or X-plane, in a decade. It will test new electric propulsion technology.

Drone Technolgy

In October, we evaluated a system being developed for the Federal Aviation Administration to safely manage drone air traffic.


Electric Propulsion

We selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop and advanced electric propulsion system to enable deep space travel to an asteroid and Mars.


Our technology transfer program continued to share the agency’s technology with industry, academia and other government agencies at an unprecedented rate.

Centennial Challenges

Our Centennial Challenges program conducted four competition events in 2016 to spark innovation and enable solutions in important technology focus areas.

Watch the full video recap of ‘This Year @NASA’ here:

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2016 in science - Wikipedia

A few samples:

7 January: Mathematicians, as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, report the discovery of a new prime number: 274,207,281 − 1.

14 January:  Astronomers report that ASASSN-15lh, first observed in June 2015, is likely the brightest supernova ever detected. Twice as luminous as the previous record holder, at peak detonation it was as bright as 570 billion Suns

18 January: Light-activated nanoparticles able to kill over 90% of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are demonstrated at the University of Colorado Boulder.

20 January: Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology present the strongest evidence yet that a ninth planet is present in the Solar System, orbiting the Sun every 15,000 years.

26 January: Researchers at the University of Washington announce a new handheld, pen-sized microscope that could identify cancer cells in doctor’s offices and operating rooms.

27 January: Google announces a breakthrough in artificial intelligence with a program able to beat the European champion of the board game Go.

28 January: Research into the nature of time by Griffith University’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics shows how an asymmetry for time reversal might be responsible for making the universe move forward in time.

11 February: Scientists at the LIGO, Virgo and GEO600 announce the first direct detection of a gravitational wave predicted by the general relativity theory of Albert Einstein.

13 April: A quadriplegic man, Ian Burkhart from Ohio, is able to perform complex functional movements with his fingers after a chip was implanted in his brain.

20 June:  China introduces the Sunway TaihuLight, the world’s fastest supercomputer, capable of 93 petaflops and a peak performance of 125 petaflops.

30 June:The first known death caused by a self-driving car is disclosed by Tesla Motors.

4 July: NASA scientists announce the arrival of the Juno spacecraft at the planet Jupiter.

5 July: China completes construction on the world’s largest radio telescope.

2 May:  A study in PNAS concludes that Earth may be home to 1 trillion species, with 99.999 percent remaining undiscovered.

10 May: NASA’s Kepler mission verifies 1,284 new exoplanets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

18 May: At the I/O developer conference, Google reveals it has been working on a new chip, known as the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which delivers “an order of magnitude higher performance per watt than all commercially available GPUs and FPGA.

3 June June: NASA and ESA jointly announce that the Universe is expanding 5% to 9% faster than previously thought, after using the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the distance to stars in 19 galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

27 July:  Neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used insecticide, are found to reduce bee sperm counts by almost 40%, as well as cutting the lifespan of bee drones by a third.

29 July:The seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone – an area in the Pacific Ocean being targeted for deep-sea mining – is found to contain an abundance and diversity of life, with more than half of the species collected being new to science.

4 August: A team at the University of Oxford achieves a quantum logic gate with record-breaking 99.9% precision, reaching the benchmark required to build a quantum computer.

5 August: Research by Imperial College London suggests that a new form of light can be created by binding it to a single electron, combining the properties of both.

11 August: The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is found to be the longest-lived vertebrate, able to reach a lifespan of nearly 400 years.

10 September:The second largest meteorite ever found is exhumed near Gancedo, Argentina. It weighs 30 tonnes and fell to Earth around 2000 BC.

16 September: The development of 1 terabit-per-second transmission rates over optical fiber is announced by Nokia Bell Labs, Deutsche Telekom T-Labs and the Technical University of Munich.

21 September: Scientists report that, based on human DNA genetic studies, all non-African humans in the world today can be traced to a single population that exited Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.

11 October: Scientists identify the maximum human lifespan at an average age of 115, with an absolute upper limit of 125 years old.

4 November: Researchers in the UK announce a genetically modified "superwheat” that increases the efficiency of photosynthesis to boost yields by 20 to 40 percent. Field trials are expected in 2017.

8 November: Lab-grown mini lungs, developed from stem cells, are successfully transplanted into mice by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System.

13 November: The University of East Anglia reports that global emissions of CO2 did not grow in 2015 and are projected to rise only slightly in 2016, marking three years of almost no growth.

28 November: Scientists at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially recognizes names for four new chemical elements: Nihonium, Nh, 113; Moscovium, Mc, 115; Tennessine, Ts, 117 and Oganesson, Og, 118.

15 December: Scientists use a new form of gene therapy to partially reverse aging in mice. After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger, had straighter spines and better cardiovascular health, healed quicker when injured, and lived 30% longer.

22 December: A study finds the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus between 70–100% effective, and thus making it the first proven vaccine against the disease. 

and a lot more…


Humanity may be alone in the Universe

“But this is itself a preposterous claim, based on no evidence whatsoever. Abiogenesis may have been common; it may have occurred multiple times on Earth alone, or on Mars, Titan, Europa, Venus, Enceladus, or elsewhere even in our own Solar System. Or it may be such a rare process that even if we created a hundred clones of a young Earth — or a thousand, or a million — our world might be the only one where it occurred.”

Given the huge number of stars, planets, and chances at life that the galaxy and the Universe has given us, it seems paradoxical that we haven’t yet encountered any form of alien intelligence or even life. The discoveries make in the field of exoplanet studies, particularly by the Kepler mission, make this an even bigger problem than we anticipated: more than 10^22 planets with Earth-like condition are expected to exist in our Universe. So does this mean that intelligent life beyond Earth is pretty much a certainty, as Adam Frank asserted in the New York Times last week? Hardly; what it means is that we have a long way to go in the sciences of astrobiology, abiogenesis and exo-evolution. There’s so much to learn that drawing conclusions about what’s out there is more than premature: it’s not even science.

Come get the full story of what we know – and what we still need to learn – over on Forbes today.

Kepler 452b: How Earth-like is it and how do we find Earth 2.0?

Last month NASA announced the discovery of the “most Earth-like world” ever found outside our solar system.

The planet is said to be rocky and potentially home to oceans of liquid water (it’s in the “Goldilocks Zone” of its star where water wouldn’t freeze or boil away). Promising, but how Earth-like is Kepler 452b really?

To answer this question I first want to clarify what exoplanet hunters mean by “Earth-like”.

There are generally considered to be two forms of planet:

Gas giants & Terrestrial planets.

If you were to look up the definition of terrestrial you’d find something like this:


 That’s right, under these parameters planets like Mars, Venus and even Mercury fall under the category of Earth-like! It’s not the fault of the planet hunters though: this method of categorization was started by thinking of the planets geologically and in that sense, there are largely two branches of planetary types: those made mostly of gas and those made mostly of rock.

So what sort of terrestrial planet is Kepler 452b? Does it have an ocean? An atmosphere? If you were to look at Yelp reviews would you find somewhere to eat there?

It’s a tough call. Extracting information on a place so distant is both surgical and extremely difficult.

I made a gif using NASA’s exoplanet archive to show you what it looks like to scientists trying to discover exoplanets:

In the top right you can see a cluster of vertically spread dots  that gradually make their way to the right. These dots represent the brightness levels of light coming from a star.

When a planet orbits in front of the star, the starlight dims and the cluster of dots the telescope registers should go down to show that the star, temporarily got dimmer. If it happens on a regular basis we can say reliably that something is in a stable orbit around the planet.

Unfortunately (also shown in the gif) not all the clusters representing the star’s brightness dip together. For whatever reason, perhaps because the planet doesn’t block all the star’s light, or maybe due to solar activity the data is extremely messy. Extracting useful information from this stuff can be time-consuming and it won’t necessarily reveal the most reliable information.

A few years ago there was another “Earth-like” world by the name of Kepler 186f that astronomers couldn’t even agree existed. The data they were looking at wasn’t clear and to this day we’re not sure if there’s a potentially habitable world floating around there, or if the Kepler telescope registered some sort of alternative celestial phenomenon.

As it happens the main method used by the Kepler mission to hunt planets (known formally as the “transiting method”) actually favors the other type of planet and the other type of stars: gas giants and red dwarfs.

Gas giants are, obviously, incredible worlds. They’re just not Earth-like so if you’re looking for life you may not be happy to consistently discover the exact type of planet you don’t need.

This happens because gas giants are so big that they block enough starlight to drop almost all the clusters of dots. They block enough light that the Kepler telescope can say “Whoa, there’s definitely a planet there”.

What about red dwarf stars? For a long time astronomers thought it unlikely life could develop around these places but the consensus seems to be out and changing on that front.

Since red dwarfs are so small, even a tiny rocky planet would consistently block out enough of its light for the Kepler telescope to pick up on it. We’re searching those star systems with fervor.

So this brings me back to, as the headlines put it, “Earth’s Twin” Kepler 452b:

How Earth-like is it?

Unfortunately the media got ahead of itself. We don’t yet have one of the most important aspects of the planet to even know what it’s made of! We need the planet’s density.

By knowing the density of the planet we can get an idea of whether what makes of this object eclipsing starlight is made of something light (Water? Ice) or something heavier (Rock? Metal?). This is totally crucial information that we lack and until we have it all we can really say is that Kepler 452b exists.

Somewhere out there is a world. It’s the perfect distance away… but what’s it made of?

If we could find out, if we could only put that piece of the jigsaw in place the picture might reveal one of the most important discoveries in modern astronomy: we could find ourselves staring, from a distance of 1400 light years, at Earth 2.0…

… or we could be staring at a small, gassy mini-Neptune a cold, windy place, mostly atmosphere and no life.

The search isn’t over

(Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

A Space Odyssey: 21 Years of Searching for Another Earth

There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world. – Epicurus, c. 300 B.C.

Are we alone? Are there other planets like ours? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

These are questions mankind has been asking for years—since the time of Greek philosophers. But for years, those answers have been elusive, if not impossible to find.

The month of October marks the 21st anniversary of the discovery of the first planet orbiting another sun-like star (aka. an exoplanet), 51 Pegasi b or “Dimidium.” Its existence proved that there were other planets in the galaxy outside our solar system.*

Even more exciting is the fact that astronomers are in hot pursuit of the first discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting a star other than the sun. The discovery of the so-called “blue dot” could redefine our understanding of the universe and our place in it, especially if astronomers can also find signs that life exists on that planet’s surface.

Astronomy is entering a fascinating era where we’re beginning to answer tantalizing questions that people have pondered for thousands of years.

Are we alone?

In 1584, when the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno asserted that there were “countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns,” he was accused of heresy.

But even in Bruno’s time, the idea of a plurality of worlds wasn’t entirely new. As far back as ancient Greece, humankind has speculated that other solar systems might exist and that some would harbor other forms of life.

Still, centuries passed without convincing proof of planets around even the nearest stars.

Are there other planets like ours?

The first discovery of a planet orbiting a star similar to the sun came in 1995. The Swiss team of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of Geneva announced that they had found a rapidly orbiting gas world located blisteringly close to the star 51 Pegasi.

This announcement marked the beginning of a flood of discoveries. Exotic discoveries transformed science fiction into science fact:

But what about another Earth?

Our first exoplanet mission**, Kepler, launched in 2009 and revolutionized how astronomers understand the universe and our place in it. Kepler was built to answer the question—how many habitable planets exist in our galaxy?

And it delivered: Thousands of planet discoveries poured in, providing statistical proof that one in five sun-like stars (yellow, main-sequence G type) harbor Earth-sized planets orbiting in their habitable zones– where it’s possible liquid water could exist on their surface.

Now, our other missions like the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes point at promising planetary systems (TRAPPIST-1) to figure out whether they are suitable for life as we know it.

Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

Now that exoplanet-hunting is a mainstream part of astronomy, the race is on to build instruments that can find more and more planets, especially worlds that could be like our own.

Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), set for launch in 2017-2018, will look for super-Earth and Earth-sized planets around stars much closer to home. TESS will find new planets the same way Kepler does—via the transit method—but will cover 400 times the sky area.

The James Webb Space Telescope, to launch in 2018, wil be our most powerful space telescope to date. Webb will use its spectrograph to look at exoplanet atmospheres, searching for signs of life.

We still don’t know where or which planets are in the habitable zones of the nearest stars­ to Earth. Searching out our nearest potentially habitable neighbors will be the next chapter in this unfolding story.

*The first true discovery of extrasolar planets was actually a triplet of dead worlds orbiting the remains of an exploded star, called a pulsar star. Two of three were found by Dr. Alexander Wolszczan in 1992– a full three years before Dimidium’s discovery. But because they are so strange, and can’t support life as we know it, most scientists would reserve the “first” designation for a planet orbiting a normal star.

** The French CoRoT mission, launched in 2006, was the first dedicated exoplanet space mission. It has contributed dozens of confirmed exoplanets to the ranks and boasts a roster of some of the most well-studied planets outside our solar system.

To stay up-to-date on our latest exoplanet discoveries, visit:

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Mercury is passing directly across the sun for the first time in nearly a decade.

The innermost planet of our solar system will look like a small, dark circle cutting across the sun’s disc. In the U.S., the transit began shortly after 7 a.m. ET on Monday and will continue for more than seven hours.

At least part of the transit, which only happens about 13 times every century, will be visible across the Americas, Europe, Africa and large portions of Asia.

If you’re hoping to watch it, eye protection is key. NASA stresses that “viewing this event safely requires a telescope or high-powered binoculars fitted with solar filters made of specially-coated glass or Mylar.”

You won’t be able to see the tiny dot of Mercury on its celestial crawl without magnification, NASA says.

Another option: Check out one of the multiple live-streaming events going on Monday. NASA says it will stream the transit here, here and here.

It’s not all about the show — transits like this one have historically been, and continue to be, important research opportunities for scientists. First observed in 1631, the transits were later used to “measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun,”NASA said.

Now, they provide scientists an opportunity to study the planets’ exospheres — the thin layer of gases that make up their atmosphere.

“When Mercury is in front of the sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” NASA scientist Rosemary Killen said in a release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”

Additionally, scientists have found that a transiting planet causes a drop in the sun’s brightness.

This phenomenon is “the main way we find planets outside the solar system,” NASA says.

The Kepler mission, which is searching for habitable planets, has found 1,041 planets to date using the transit method. The mission says it is able to determine the size of a planet by observing its transit.

Image Credit: NASA

New planet orbiting two stars discovered

A team of astronomers, including a San Francisco State University researcher, has discovered a new planet orbiting a pair of stars, the 10th “circumbinary” planet discovered by NASA’s Kepler Mission and a milestone for the 6-year-old spacecraft.

The planet, known as Kepler-453b, is located within its host stars’ “habitable zone,” the area around the stars in which life could potentially exist. And the somewhat fortuitous nature of its discovery indicate there could be more like it than previously believed, according to Stephen Kane, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University and member of the team that made the discovery.

“If we had observed this planet earlier or later than we did, we would have seen nothing and assumed there was no planet there,” Kane said. “That suggests that there are a lot more of these kinds of planets than we are thinking, and we’re just looking at the wrong time.”

Keep reading

Largest Collection of Planets EVER Discovered!

Guess what!? Our Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets, which is the single largest finding of planets to date. This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can possibly one day discover another Earth-like planet.

But what exactly does that mean? These planets were previously seen by our spacecraft, but have now been verified. Kepler’s candidates require verification to determine if they are actual planets, and not another object, such as a small star, mimicking a planet. This announcement more than doubles the number of verified planets from Kepler.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets. These follow-up observations are often time and resource intensive. This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously.

They employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler. 

What that means in English: Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs. If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.

The Basics: Our Kepler space telescope measures the brightness of stars. The data will look like an EKG showing the heart beat. Whenever a planet passes in front of its parent star a viewed from the spacecraft, a tiny pulse or beat is produced. From the repeated beats, we can detect and verify the existence of Earth-size planets and learn about their orbits and sizes. This planet-hunting technique is also known as the Transit Method.

The number of planets by size for all known exoplanets, planets that orbit a sun-like star, can be seen in the above graph. The blue bars represent all previously verified exoplanets by size, while the orange bars represent Kepler’s 1,284 newly validated planets announced on May 10.

While our original Kepler mission has concluded, we have more than 4 years of science collected that produced a remarkable data set that will be used by scientists for decades. The spacecraft itself has been re-purposed for a new mission, called K2 – an extended version of the original Kepler mission to new parts of the sky and new fields of study.

The above visual shows all the missions we’re currently using, and plan to use, in order to continue searching for signs of life beyond Earth.

Following Kepler, we will be launching future missions to continue planet-hunting , such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the James Webb Space Telescope. We hope to continue searching for other worlds out there and maybe even signs of life-as-we-know-it beyond Earth.

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What are the odds of finding Earth 2.0?

“The ingredients for life are everywhere we look, including in molecular clouds in interstellar space, locked inside of asteroids and in the frozen worlds of the Kuiper belt. Our own Solar System may have life in subsurface oceans on Europa or Enceladus, in the cloud-tops of Venus, beneath the surface of worlds like Mars, or even with an entirely different chemistry on a methane-rich world like Titan . If the odds of a habitable-zone world being actually inhabitable by humans is even one-in-a-million, then there are tens of thousands of worlds in the Milky Way alone that could be our Earth 2.0, and the closest one is likely under 1,000 light years away. It’s time to find it.”

The latest haul from NASA’s Kepler mission indicates that, in it sample of some 150,000 stars, there are over 2,000 confirmed exoplanets, with approximately 40% of them rocky worlds. If we extrapolate this to our entire galaxy, we have about 60 billion habitable zone planets in our galaxy alone. But there’s a big difference between habitable zone and capable of hosting humans as they are right now. How close are we to finding our next possible home in space?

TESS: The Planet Hunter

So you’re thinking…who’s TESS? But, it’s more like: WHAT is TESS? 

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is an explorer-class planet finder that is scheduled to launch no later than June 2018. This mission will search the entire sky for exoplanets — planets outside our solar system that orbit sun-like stars.

In the first-ever space borne all-sky transit survey, TESS will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, orbiting a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances.

The main goal of this mission is to detect small planets with bright host stars in the solar neighborhood, so that we can better understand these planets and their atmospheres.

TESS will have a full time job monitoring the brightness of more than 200,000 stars during a two year mission. It will search for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. These transits occur when a planet’s orbit carries it directly in front of its parent star as viewed from Earth (cool GIF below).

TESS will provide prime targets for further, more detailed studies with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), as well as other large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future.

What is the difference between TESS and our Kepler spacecraft?

TESS and Kepler address different questions: Kepler answers “how common are Earth-like planets?” while TESS answers “where are the nearest transiting rocky planets?”

What do we hope will come out of the TESS mission?

The main goal is to find rocky exoplanets with solid surfaces at the right distance from their stars for liquid water to be present on the surface. These could be the best candidates for follow-up observations, as they fall within the “habitable zone” and be at the right temperatures for liquid water on their surface.

TESS will use four cameras to study sections of the sky’s north and south hemispheres, looking for exoplanets. The cameras would cover about 90 percent of the sky by the end of the mission. This makes TESS an ideal follow-up to the Kepler mission, which searches for exoplanets in a fixed area of the sky. Because the TESS mission surveys the entire sky, TESS is expected to find exoplanets much closer to Earth, making them easier for further study.

Stay updated on this planet-hunting mission HERE.

Want to learn more? Join our Twitter Q&A on May 18 at 1:00 p.m. EDT. Use #AskTESS for questions!

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Is Earth Our Solar System’s Missing ‘Super-Earth’?

“The large number of 2-10 [Earth mass] planets discovered is often cited as evidence that Super-Earths are very common and thus Solar System’s makeup is unusual… However, if the boundary between Terran and Neptunian worlds is shifted down to 2 [Earth masses], the Solar System is no longer unusual. Indeed, by our definition three of the eight Solar System planets are Neptunian worlds, which are the most common type of planet around other Sun-like stars.”

When we first began looking for exoplanets, we were expecting that other solar systems would be like ours: with inner, small, rocky worlds and outer, large gas giants. What we found surprised us in a couple of ways. Not only could planets of any size appear anywhere, as they seem to, but the most common mass for a planet was somewhere between two and ten Earth masses, something we don’t have a single example of in our Solar System. Does this mean something unusual happened in our Solar System? Did we have some oddity of our formation that prevented us from having the most common class of world? Up until this year, that was the consensus opinion. But thanks to a new paper by two Columbia University astrophysicists, we’re realizing that the big problem is not our Solar System, but our way of classifying planets.

It turns out that you can’t be much larger than Earth before you become a gas giant, and so the missing “super-Earths” may turn out to simply be Venus and Earth!

Mercury In the Spotlight

For more than seven hours on Monday, May 9, Mercury will be visible as a tiny black dot crossing the face of the sun. This rare event – which happens only slightly more than once a decade – is called a transit.

Although Mercury whips around the sun every 88 days – over four times faster than Earth – the three bodies rarely align. Because Mercury orbits in a plane 7 degrees tilted from Earth’s orbit, it usually darts above or below our line of sight to the sun. As a result, a Mercury transit happens only about 13 times a century. The last one was in 2006, and the next one isn’t until 2019.

When: On May 9, shortly after 7:00 a.m. EDT, Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot against a blazing backdrop, traversing the sun’s disk over seven and a half hours. Mercury will cross the edge of the sun (ingress) after 7:00 a.m. EDT. The mid-transit point will occur a little after 10:45 a.m. EDT, with egress around 2:30 p.m. EDT.

Where: Skywatchers in Western Europe, South America and eastern North America will be able to see the entirety of the transit. The entire 7.5-hour path across the sun will be visible across the Eastern U.S. – with magnification and proper solar filters – while those in the West can observe the transit in progress at sunrise.


Unlike the 2012 Venus transit of the sun, Mercury is too small to be visible without magnification from a telescope or high-powered binoculars. Both must have safe solar filters made of specially-coated glass or Mylar; you can never look directly at the sun. We’re offering several avenues for the public to view the event without specialized and costly equipment, including images on, a one-hour NASA Television special, and social media coverage.

The Science…Why are Planetary Transits Important?

Transits like this allowed scientists in the 17th century to make the first estimates of Earth’s distance from the sun. Transit observations over the past few centuries have also helped scientists study everything from the atmosphere of Venus to the slight shifts in Mercury’s orbit that could only be explained by the theory of general relativity. Because we know Mercury’s size and location precisely, this transit will help scientists calibrate telescopes on solar observatories SDO, SOHO, and Hinode

Transits can also teach us more about planets – both in and out of our solar system. The Venus transit in 2012 provided observations of the planet’s atmosphere. Transits are also the main way we find planets outside the solar system, called exoplanets.

The transit method looks for a drop in the brightness of a star when a planet passes in front of it. This method will not find every planet – only those that happen to cross our line of sight from Earth to the star. But with enough sensitivity, the transit method through continuous monitoring is a great way to detect small, Earth-size planets, and has the advantage of giving us both the planet’s size (from the fraction of starlight blocked), as well as its orbit (from the period between transits). Our Kepler/K2 mission uses this method to find exoplanets, as will the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites, or TESS, following its launch in 2017/2018. 

We will stream a live program on NASA TV and the agency’s Facebook page from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. – an informal roundtable during which experts representing planetary, heliophysics and astrophysics will discuss the science behind the Mercury transit. Viewers can ask questions via Facebook and Twitter using #AskNASA.

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BREAKING: Kepler Telescope Discovers a System of Six Small Exoplanets

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Nature Magazine reports a NASA-Kepler discovery of a system that has six low-mass, low-density exoplanets that transit their star.  The system is being designated Kepler-11.  These planets are rather unusual for their combination of low mass and low density, and are surrounded at least with gaseous envelopes, or are likely to be icy.

It seems as if there are more questions than answers about this at the moment, but we thought it would be worth sharing.