Thursday, October 23, 2014

This incredible GIF shows how many planets we've found in 2014

Kepler-186f, the most Earth-like exoplanet found so far. NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

This year, we've found 736 planets orbiting distant stars.

That fact alone is remarkable. But it's even more amazing when you consider that we didn't find a single one of these exoplanets until 1989, and only found 1045 of them in total in the 23 years following that.

Here's a terrific GIF that shows just how huge this year's haul has been, spotted by Laura Olin:


Of the 736 spotted so far this year, a whopping 715 came in one announcement, made by NASA scientists in Feburary (this announcement is the orange bar in the GIF).

The Kepler space telescope — which orbits the sun, taking high-resolution images of distant stars so scientists can look for planets surrounding them — was responsible for these 715 planets, along with 246 planets announced at other times, including the potentially Earth-like planet announced last week.

Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope was temporarily shut down in May 2013 because of an equipment failure. NASA is currently planning a secondary mission for Kepler that will allow it to keep collecting data despite these limitations.

There are also new exoplanet-spotting telescopes that will go into operation in 2018 and 2020 — making it likely that we'll continue finding distant planets, including some that could be home to alien life.

Correction: This post originally stated that Kepler was permanently shut down, and did not mention the possibility of its secondary mission.

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