Periodic Trends: An ‘Astronomical’ Discovery

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

NASA announced two weeks ago that it had discovered 715 new planets using the Kepler space observatory. To give some perspective, only about 1,000 planets had been discovered in our own galaxy prior to this announcement. Now the number has nearly doubled.

The Kepler space mission, which began in 2009, was launched to find other planets that may be deemed in or near “habitable zones” and have properties similar to Earth’s. Habitable zones are areas that are close enough to suitable stars to have the appropriate temperature to sustain life and that may have water. A significant majority of the planets discovered are about four times the size of Earth. Out of all these 715 planets, four were labeled in the habitable zone. A year’s time on one of the planets is equivalent to one month on Earth. All of the planets discovered orbit a total of 305 different stars, but when Kepler was first introduced to the skies, it was pointed at
over 150,000 stars.

There are a lot of numbers and facts that NASA threw at the public, but what does this mean to us?  In our own solar system, we are looking at the potential of life on other planets like Mars, and even the many moons that surround our planets, like Europa, which orbits Jupiter and is the strongest candidate for sustaining life because of its oxygen atmosphere and water and ice surface. Scientists are trying to find life in just our eight planets and about 170
moons (and Pluto).

Now expand that number to include 715 planets and gosh knows how many moons are included in that statistic. The more planets we find, the higher the chance that life exists elsewhere. Although only four planets were deemed habitable around 305 stars, this is only in our own galaxy. There are about 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy — a billion times more than what Kepler was observing. To increase that number exponentially, it is estimated that there are as many as 100 to 500 billion galaxies, and each galaxy can have hundreds of billions of stars. You do the math.

Moreover, what these telescopes and light-measuring tools see are planets and stars light-years upon light-years away. This means that what is observed technically happened hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yes, Kepler is a time machine to enthusiastic scientists. The feat that NASA has achieved is even more remarkable when you consider that in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo and Herschel were only just discovering the planets, how they orbited the sun and their moons. Some moons in our own solar system have only just been discovered.

Astronomers have gone from tracking a little red dot in the sky with a hand-held telescope to huge animatronic computer-controlled telescopes and observatories with complicated and precise lenses, mirrors and orbits that weigh thousands of pounds and manipulate light with complicated techniques to identify entities in space.

These planets are the result of only the first two years of Kepler’s study — 2009 to 2011 — and there are certainly more candidates that Kepler suspects may be planets, but only those 715 are confirmed. This means there may be more to come from Kepler.

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