October 5, 2022

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Thirty years ago, we knew a handful of planets, and now they're here - officially!

Thirty years ago, we knew a handful of planets, and now they’re here – officially!

The Crown is on an exciting journey of exploration across the universe.

Not so long ago, we lived in a universe with only a few known planets, all orbiting our sun. That changed in 1992, when astronomers announced that they had discovered some planets outside our solar system for the first time. Now researchers have come up with a special cosmic landmark. Because even though the number of known exoplanets has been close to 5,000 for a while, it’s now official: we’re over 5,000!

cosmic teacher
That unusual boundary was crossed just a few days ago, when 65 new exoplanets were added to the prestigious Planets Prestige. NASA’s Exoplanet Archive† Records exoplanet discoveries that have been confirmed using multiple detection methods or analytical techniques. This means that we currently know that there are as many as 5,000 planets outside our solar system! A beautiful cosmic landmark and a crown on 30 years of exciting exploration across the cosmos. “It’s not just a number,” researcher Jesse Christiansen said. “Each of these exoplanets is a new world, a whole new planet. I’m excited about all of them, because we really don’t know anything about them yet.”

Back in time
It all began on January 22, 1992, when Polish astronomers Alexander Volchzan and Maciej Konaki discovered two exoplanets: PSR B1257 + 12 c (Poltergeist) and PSR B1257 + 12 d (Phobetor). These were immediately very strange and strange worlds, because these two planets orbit a pulsar – a rapidly rotating neutron star that forms when large stars reach the end of their lives and explode. Astronomers tracked the first two exoplanets by measuring small changes in the timing of the pulsations. It was revolutionary. “I basically opened all the gates,” says Wolszczan. “If you can find planets around a neutron star, they should be everywhere.”

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outer planets
Nothing turned out to be less true. And in the years since, this assumption has been amply demonstrated. Within a few decades, thanks in particular to the Kepler space telescope, thousands of (candidate) exoplanets were discovered; Each of them has its own worlds. For example, more than 5,000 planets have been found to date that include small and rocky worlds like Earth, as well as gas giants many times larger than Jupiter. The so-called “hot Jupiters” were also discovered; Gas giants with scorching temperatures – unlike the gas giants we know from our solar system – are very close to their star. There is also the so-called “super-earth”; rocky worlds larger than ours and “little Neptune”; Smaller versions of Neptune. Add to this mix the planets orbiting two stars simultaneously and the planets stubbornly orbiting the remnants of dead, collapsing stars and the picture is complete.

The more than 5,000 exoplanets that have been confirmed so far include several types — some similar to the planets in our solar system, others vastly different from anything we know. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By the way, those 5,000 known exoplanets are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Because our galaxy may contain hundreds of billions of planets. Many are still waiting to be discovered.

new era
At the same time, Wolszczan argues, we are now entering a new era, which goes beyond simply adding new planets to the list. Thanks to TESS planetary hunter, the recently launched James Webb Telescope still under construction Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope Launched in 2027, the discovered exoplanets can also be distinguished. By capturing light from the atmospheres of exoplanets and reading the gases present, it can be determined if a planet is habitable or even inhabited.

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This means that the chances of encountering extraterrestrial life are increasing. “In my view, it is inevitable that we will find ‘some kind’ of life somewhere – most likely a primitive kind,” says Wolszczan. “The close connection between the chemistry of life on Earth and the chemistry found throughout the universe, as well as the discovery of pervasive organic molecules, suggests that finding life is only a matter of time.”

This, however, is still in the future. Right now, NASA is celebrating the confirmation of the existence of 5,000 planets outside our solar system. “I really feel accomplished and in awe of what is out there,” said William Borucki, the now-retired Kepler mission principal investigator. None of us expected this huge diversity of planetary and star systems. It is just wonderful. “