NASA finds eighth planet in distant solar system

NASA has discovered an eighth planet in a distant solar system — but its not a place University of Texas-Austin astronomer Andrew Vanderburg would ever want to visit.

The planet, Kepler 90i, is scorching hot (about 800 degrees Farenheit) and rocky, located in the Kepler-90 system about 2,500 light-years away from Earth, Vanderburg said Thursday during a NASA teleconference.

This discovery, made using computers that “learned” to find previously missed exoplanets in data from the Kepler Space Telescope , means that our solar system’s eight planets might not be so extraordinary after all, he added.

“We now know our solar system is not the sole record holder for the most planets,” he said.

Vanderburg, also a NASA Sagan fellow, and Christopher Shallue, senior software engineer at Google A.I., developed developed this “neural network” to recognize patterns caused by actual planets, not by other objects.

The program “looks at more signals than a human could look at,” Shallue said. “It will help astronomers have more impact.”

But it cannot be used to determine if there is alien life on any of these planets, scientists said.

“Searching for bio-signatures will be something that has to be done with more specialized equipment,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director.

That would be more reserved for the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, for example, which will study the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth. Webb is scheduled for launch in Spring 2019, according to NASA.

The neural network program also discovered a sixth, earth-sized planet (Kepler-80g) in the Kepler-80 system.

The Kepler Telescope was launched in 2009, with a primary mission to hunt for distant planets outside our solar system — known as exoplanets. It’s discoveries have led to the widely accepted belief among astronomers that there could be at least one planet orbiting each star.

Since the telescope’s launch, about 2,500 exoplanets have been confirmed, according to NASA.

Scientists plan to continue sifting through the Kepler data with this neutral network program, though they couldn’t say how many more planets they anticipate finding.

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or http://ift.tt/1bNCYqd.

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