What we know about NASA’s major exoplanet announcement

21 Feb 2017

An artist’s conception of Kepler-421b. Image: D A Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

NASA is gearing up for another major announcement regarding a discovery ‘beyond our solar system’, but is keeping its cards close to its chest.

NASA is not shy about making regular announcements on scientific discoveries it is involved in, but, every now and then, it likes to build up a fervour by announcing a press conference for a discovery that goes above and beyond the norm.

Being purposefully vague, NASA has called the conference for 6pm GMT on 22 February to present new findings on planets that orbit stars other than our sun, otherwise known as exoplanets.

With its Kepler telescope, NASA has been peering deep into the cosmos to identify thousands of exoplanet candidates, identifying when a planet passes in front of its parent star and blocking a small fraction of the light from that star.

One of the biggest discoveries made by the telescope is the exoplanet Kepler-452b, which was found to be the closest in similarity to our own planet, giving it the nickname ‘Earth 2.0’.

Despite the fact that scientific readings of the rocky planet reflect a similar ecosystem to our own, the enormous distance of 1,400 light years away would make any human mission to Kepler-452b simply impossible for thousands of years.

Who is Michael Gillon?

As for tomorrow’s announcement, some of the names expected to attend the conference might offer a few hints.

One of those names is Belgian astronomer Michael Gillon from the University of Liège, who has spent years studying exoplanets using TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope), a 60cm telescope.

In May of last year, Gillon and his fellow researchers published a paper in Nature – the same journal that this latest mysterious announcement will be included in – announcing the discovery of three planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star, just 40 light years from Earth.

Following NASA’s announcement, Reddit users will be able to head over to the site’s Ask Me Anything section from 8pm GMT, where scientists involved in the discovery will answer questions in English and Spanish on these findings.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic