NASA announces discovery of solar system’s ‘twin’ in distant space

15 Dec 2017

Image: Andrus Ciprian/Shutterstock

With the help of artificial intelligence, NASA has announced the discovery of another solar system equal in the number of planets to our own.

Our efforts to find evidence of planets that could support life have increased exponentially in recent years thanks to the advent of powerful space telescopes such as Kepler.

In the several years it has been operating, the number of exoplanet candidates has been estimated at close to 4,500, while the confirmed figure stands at 2,341.

But there is only so much one telescope can see when human astronomers are required to search through the data, which is why artificial intelligence (AI) has made huge strides in our quest.

Now, after much anticipation, NASA has finally announced the big news that AI-powered research using Kepler has discovered our solar system’s ‘twin’ in deep space. It is known as Kepler-90 and is approximately 2,545 light years from Earth.

The solar system can be called a twin because it is the first we have seen to have eight planets, aside from our own. It was only with the AI’s help that the eighth planet (Kepler-90i) was spotted after the initial discovery of the solar system.

The breakthrough came about after researchers Christopher Shallue and Andrew Vanderburg trained a computer to learn how to identify exoplanets in the light readings recorded by Kepler.

Shallue, a senior software engineer at Google AI, decided to apply a neural network concept to the vast amounts of Kepler data in his spare time.

“I started Googling for ‘finding exoplanets with large datasets’ and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge dataset available,” Shallue said. “Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”

During its first test run of 15,000 previously vetted exoplanet signals, the AI was able to identify true planets with 96pc accuracy. The AI could take this new knowledge and apply it to the rest of the 20,000 signals.

Not particularly habitable

Unlike our own solar system, however, the chances of life on the eighth planet are slim. While it is about 30pc larger than our own planet, Kepler-90i is so close to its star that its average surface temperature is believed to exceed 400C, on a par with Mercury.

“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,” explained Vanderburg, a NASA Sagan postdoctoral fellow, and astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

NASA’s director of its astrophysics division, Paul Hertz, said it was a momentous occasion and a sign of AI’s potential power.

“Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them,” he said.

“This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

The team’s research has been published online.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic