Brave New Worlds

NASA scientists have recently reported the discovery of over 1200 exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—including 54 which may be suitable for life. The Kepler mission launched […]

NASA scientists have recently reported the discovery of over 1200 exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—including 54 which may be suitable for life.

The Kepler mission launched in March 2009, with the main task of searching for alien worlds. After just a few months of observation, the project yielded breathtaking results. Hundreds of planets were detected by the space telescope, including 68 that are the same size as the Earth. The detection process is simple: the telescope is pointed at a star, and the intensity of light coming from it is measured over a period of time. Any planets that are orbiting will cause a minor eclipse as they pass between the star and the telescope (known as a transit), in turn causing a drop in light intensity. The magnitude of the drop will correspond to the size of the planet, and the duration of the eclipse will be proportional to the orbit period and the distance from the star.

These results would not have been possible without the collaboration of Oxford scientists at the Department of Physics. Researchers there have developed planethunters.org, which allows ‘online stargazers’ to identify these alien eclipses,. So far, fascinated members of the public have helped to identify over 90 orbiting exoplanets from the Kepler light curves, highlighting the overwhelming power of such citizen science projects.

The achievements of the mission continue to grow, and these exciting preliminary results are just a hint of the many thousands of worlds in our galaxy that are yet to be discovered. Who knows, maybe some of them are looking back

Tags: ,

About Leila Battison