NASA finds distant star circled by eight planets

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"Today, Kepler confirms that stars can have large families of planets, just like our solar system", Paul Hertz, director of the US space agency NASA's Astrophysics Division said in a teleconference.

Earth's solar system is no longer the only large solar system yet discovered, as NASA has discovered an 8th planet orbiting a distant star with the Kepler Space Telescope and with the help of Google's AI.

Christopher Shallue, an artificial intelligence researcher at Google, and Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, said they plan to continue their work by analysing Kepler data on more than 150,000 other stars.

The software's artificial "neural network" combed through data about 670 stars, which led to the discovery of planets Kepler 80g and Kepler 90i.

The Kepler telescope, which trails millions of miles behind Earth like a loyal pup, has gazed out into space since 2009.

Traditionally, software developers program computers to perform a particular task, from playing your favourite cat video, to determining exoplanetary signals from space based telescopes such as NASA's Kepler Mission. When an exoplanet crosses in front of one of them, Kepler registers a subtle dip in that star's sunlight. Its outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.

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"There's a lot of unexplored real estate in the Kepler-90 system", Vanderburg said, "and it would nearly be surprising to me if there weren't any more planets around this star". It's in a planetary system called Kepler-90, located in the constellation Draco, some 2,545 light years from Earth.

Kepler-90i doesn't fall inside the habitable zone of the Kepler solar system. However, its discovery meant that its system had eight verified planets.

As for Kepler-90, its planetary system could have more than eight planets, the scientists pointed out - they could just lie farther away from the star and not have orbited enough times for Kepler to have spotted them during its primary mission.

Machine learning neural networks have been assisting astronomers for a few years now. Using machine learning techniques, we can detect even weaker signals that can be missed when done manually,"explains Prof".

In a paper, the research team say the neural network ranks planet candidates above false positives 98.8 percent of the time. "But machine learning really shines in situations where there is too much data for humans to examine for themselves".

Case in point: Kepler-90i wasn't the only jewel the AI found.

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There's potential then for sifting through Kepler's entire catalogue and finding other exoplanetary worlds that have either been skimmed by scientist or haven't been checked yet, due to Kepler's rich data set.

"As the application of neutral networks to Kepler data matures, who knows what might be discovered", said Jessie Dotson, a NASA project scientist for the Kepler space telescope.

"The key idea is to let the computer learn by example instead of humans programming specific rules", Shallue said.

"It would nearly be surprising to me if there weren't any more planets in around that star".

"This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come", Hertz said.

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