Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Holy S***! NASA Announces 715 New Confirmed Exoplanets!

Yes, the title pretty much says it all. NASA scientists have confirmed the existence of 715 former planet candidates, all of which are in multi-planet systems. Sounds cool and all, but what does that actually mean?

The original goal of the Kepler mission was to continuously observe 156,000 stars and monitor how their brightnesses changed over time. One of the possible ways that a star's brightness can change is if a planet orbiting that star passes in front of the star, blocking some of the star's light from reaching us. This is what we call a transit. Observing transiting exoplanets was the primary mission of Kepler, and it has found nearly 3,500 candidates and confirmed planets to date. The pattern of light we would expect to see from a planet transiting its star is shown below for a single planet.
Image courtesy of NASA.gov