Needle in the Haystack
On Thursday NASA announced the discovery of a new exoplanet (in another solar system) orbiting a distant star (Kepler 90) 2,500 light years away. The new planet, known as Kepler-90i, is rocky and hot and orbits its star about once every 14 days.
The finding was made using data collected by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which has spotted more than 2,500 confirmed exoplanets since its launch in 2009. Unlike previous discoveries, the new exoplanet was detected with the help of an artificial intelligence researcher using a machine learning technique called neural networking.
“This is the first time a neural network specifically has been used to identify a new exoplanet,” said Christopher Shallue, a software working on the project.
For the project, the computer analyzed a small chunk of data gathered by Kepler from 2009 to 2013. Of the 150,000 stars represented in Kepler’s collection, the computer combed through 670 star systems for signs of exoplanets.
Astronomers spot exoplanets when the celestial bodies move, or transit, in front of their stars. The interaction causes a dip in brightness that creates a detectable signal. So far, the data set has about 35,000 such signals. The astronomers trained the program on a set of about 15,000 signals, and it identified planets correctly 96 percent of the time.
Image of the Kepler-90 system.
The neural network learned what was a planet and what was not a planet and was able to find the exoplanet Kepler-90i, as well as a second exoplanet named Kepler-80g around a different star system. Next, the researchers plan to explore more star systems studied by Kepler.
“We plan to search all 150,000 stars in the Kepler data system,” said Mr. Shallue.
Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, said that Kepler-90i is about 30 percent larger than Earth and about as hot as the planet Mercury, reaching about 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Seth Shostak an astronomer with the SETI Institute said the finding that Kepler 90 has eight planets shows that our solar system is “just another duck in a row. “The bad news is we’re not quite as special as we thought we were,” he added. “But the good news is we may have a lot of cosmic company.”
Will artificial intelligence first detect another planet in the Kepler-90 system, or will astronomers find a distant ninth planet orbiting our sun?
“It’s kind of cool to see which one will be proven next,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA.
Looking ahead, it’s not hard to imagine artificial intelligence being used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. AI could make the search for a needle in the hay stack less daunting and achievable.
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