What we know about NASA’s mysterious alien planet announcement

13 Dec 2017

An artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-sized planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. Image: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

When NASA hosts a major televised conference and mentions that it relates to the discovery of a distant exoplanet, ears start to prick up.

NASA has the rumour mill spinning with news that it is to hold a media teleconference at 6pm IST tomorrow (14 December) regarding a major discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

All NASA has revealed so far is that the discovery was made by researchers who used a machine-learning algorithm developed by Google to sift through enormous quantities of astronomical data.

In the eight years that Kepler has been searching for distant, potentially habitable planets, the space telescope has returned a treasure trove of discoveries, including a planet that snows sunscreen. It has even contributed to the ongoing mystery of the ‘alien megastructure’.

Who is Andrew Vanderburg?

One of the best ways to find clues as to what the announcement will be about is through the guest list, and the most standout person of the four briefings is Andrew Vandenburg, an astronomer and NASA Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.

The astronomer last made headlines with the announcement of the discovery of six comets outside our solar system orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

That discovery was also made using Kepler and was important because it was the first time that an object as small as a comet has been detected using transit photometry, a technique by which astronomers observe a star’s light for telltale dips in intensity.

Before that, Vandenburg led a team of astronomers that discovered a whole new star system of five planets in 2016, including two sub-Neptune-sized planets, a Neptune-sized planet, a sub-Saturn sized planet and a Jupiter-sized planet.

Use of AI

The other major point of interest here is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in this latest discovery.

As recently as last week (5 December), the European Southern Observatory used AI to identify two super-Earths around the distant star K2-18b.

The last time NASA made a major announcement was in April when it confirmed the existence of a vast ocean beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

The Cassini probe detected the presence of molecular hydrogen in the plume vapour of the eruption at Enceladus’ southern polar region, which could only have been created by hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and water in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface.

To watch the announcement live, you can do so at NASA’s own live stream here.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic