Now Anyone Can Hunt For Exoplanets

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To find new exoplanets, just turn to Google.

Last year, an artificial intelligence (AI) network, equipped with data from the Kepler space telescope, discovered two new exoplanets. Now, citizen scientists looking to support discovery at home can use the exoplanet-hunting neural network — Google plans to make it open source, a Google engineer announced recently in a blog post.

Exoplanets are difficult to find and harder to directly observe – most of the time scientists only know these celestial bodies exist when they block some light from their closest star. To help scientists learn more about exoplanets, including those in the “Goldilocks Zone” (the “just right” zone in which planets are most likely to host life), NASA launched the Kepler spacecraft in 2009. Its mission: make observations that might lead to the discovery of exoplanets.

It has already succeeded, and has returned a ton of data. Astronomers have been sifting through the most promising data Kepler returned, specifically 30,000 of its strongest stellar signals from 150,000 stars. Out of those, they discovered 2,500 exoplanets.

There was a lot more data, though, weaker signals too messy or subtle for humans to identify. That’s where the AI comes in. AI can discover previously unknown exoplanets because it can recognize patterns in the Kepler data humans couldn’t see. That’s how the algorithm found the two exoplanets — by analyzing 700 of the weaker signals.

This means there are still 119,300 of those weaker signals left to analyze. And the more computational power used to analyze them, the more exoplanets will be discovered.

This AI allows you to use Kepler's data to find exoplanets. Image Credit: NASA
This AI allows you to use Kepler’s data to find exoplanets. Image Credit: NASA

For those looking to add their computers to the mix, the code for this algorithm and instructions on how to use it can be found and downloaded on Github. Users will have to train the algorithm before they can use it to find new planets. Unfortunately, though, the program isn’t exactly the most user-friendly. You’ll probably need some understanding or experience with Google’s machine learning software, TensorFlow, and also Python.

Citizen scientists are playing an increasingly important role in processing the amount of data it takes to discover a new exoplanet. Recently, a group known as the Exoplanet Explorers discovered the planetary system K2-138, marking the first time that a multi-planet system was discovered entirely by the public.

The post Now Anyone Can Hunt For Exoplanets appeared first on Futurism.


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Google researchers use AI to spot distant exoplanets

Hunting for exoplanets is a very data-intensive and time-consuming task. Sifting through piles of data to find subtle signs of distant planets takes quite a lot of work, but researchers at Google have been developing a way to use AI to make the proce…
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One Scientist Has a Plan to Send the Building Blocks of Life to Distant Exoplanets

Egocentric Enterprise

For the past 30 years, popular opinion about where in space humans should go next has swayed between a new mission to the Red Planet and a return to the Moon. Considering the smorgasbord of problems we’ve made for ourselves on planet Earth, from ecological to economic, such goals of exploration and colonization can have a egoistic, even selfish, root — we may need to find a new home due to the aforementioned problems and a litany of unmentioned ones.

However, even the most optimistic colonization estimates are measured in decades, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll survive the rest of this century, let alone long enough to effectively expand humanity throughout the galaxy. But what if, right now, we could start the process of seeding life on other worlds? Humanity may not survive, but some form of life could.

Claudius Gros, theoretical physicist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, thinks we should consider it. He believes seeding life throughout the cosmos takes precedence over human colonization, and he also believes this process of intentionally seeding other planets in the universe with life, more succinctly known as deliberate panspermia, is within our technological capability.

These Theoretical Propulsion Systems Might Make Interstellar Travel a Reality
Click to View Full Infographic

Breakthrough Starshot is an ambitious plan to send the first probe ever to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star after the Sun, using a laser propulsion system.

That trip is expected to take about 20 years and will require that a probe weighing just one gram be accelerated to a speed of 160 million kmh (100 million mph), or one-fifth the speed of light. The probe won’t have a braking system and is expected to whiz by the star hours after reaching it, just enough time to take pictures to transmit back to Earth.

In a recent study published in Journal of Physics Communications, Gros proposes that we use the same laser propulsion system to send a 1.5-ton spacecraft at slower speeds so we can do more than just take pictures. He wants to achieve a stable exoplanet orbit and seed other worlds with life via onboard “mini labs” that would grow genes and cells. The stated objective is TRAPPIST-1, but other exoplanets, such as the recently discovered Ross 128b, are also under consideration.

The Long Haul

Gros’ hypothetical 1.5-ton spacecraft for seeding life would launch from Earth, and huge, Earth-based lasers directed at the probe’s 50-kilometer-wide (31-mile-wide) light sail would propel it to roughly 30 percent of the speed of light for part of its journey.

Unlike the tiny probe used for the Alpha Centauri mission, Gros’ spacecraft would need to be able to stop once it reached its destination, though, so he devised a way to do so using a magnetic sail that would generate friction with protons. This will allow the craft to decelerate en route, much like letting a car coast to full stop on the highway.

“The reason for the magnetic sail is to create a magnetic field without loss of energy,” Gros told Futurism. “You don’t want to expend energy, so you generate the field once, and then with a superconducting loop, the current stays forever, and the magnetic field stays forever.”

seeding life
The above depicts an ionized proton (blue) undergoing deflection via magnetic field (magenta). Image credit: Journal of Physics Communications

According to Gros, the magnetic sail would have a radius of roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles), and each of its loops would generate a magnetic field. These fields would shift the momentum of the probe to whatever particles it encountered. Essentially, the protons between the Earth and the probe’s destination would create the friction it needed to decelerate.

It may seem strange to imagine a giant probe being slowed down by something as small and insignificant as protons. Further complicating the situation is the fact that scientists suspect that remnants of ancient supernovae may have swept gasses out of the space surrounding our solar system and those near it, thereby lowering the density of matter.

However, Gros explained that even with that lower concentration of matter, his design could provide the necessary friction to slow the hypothetical spacecraft enough to orbit, and not flyby, an exoplanet. “You can brake via friction from the interstellar medium,” he said.

The catch is that the added mass needed to provide deceleration puts a 12,000-year timeframe on his proposed journey to TRAPPIST-1. On a cosmic scale, that isn’t even a blink of an eye, but since humans rarely live past 100, no one alive now would survive to see our probe for seeding life reach its destimation.

A New Kind of Earth

Recently, scientists have begun to theorize that the growing number of exoplanets discovered orbiting red dwarfs could have water and oxygen. These planets had much longer periods of atmospheric cooling than the Earth had, which could have prevented life from forming on them back when it first emerged on Earth.

“It took the Sun 10 million years to cool to about today’s temperature, but small stars, like TRAPPIST-1, remained hot for hundreds of millions of years,” Gros said.

Can We Make Planets Habitable?
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Consequently, he explained, the water vapor within the stratosphere of the TRAPPIST-1 planets was dissociated by the ultraviolet radiation of the host star into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen escapes into space, as it is too light to be retained by an Earth-like planet, and the oxygen left behind accumulates.

“If some of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets still have an ocean, they would also have a massive oxygen atmosphere. Earth’s oxygen pressure is 0.2 bars, but on TRAPPIST-1-like planets, it could be 100 bar or more,” said Gros.

This excess oxygen “eats up” biotic life, preventing protocell formation. Complex eukaryotes, which form the basis for present-day multi-cellular life, would never have had a chance to develop on an “oxygen planet.”

“We could have millions or billions of habitable exoplanets, but sterilized by oxygen from the beginning,” said Gros. Consequently, the common objection that we should avoid interfering with the natural evolution of alien life would fall away — we wouldn’t be interfering with anything.

The cosmic garden may await us, but the long transit time proposed by Gros may dissuade some from taking his seeding life project seriously. Even after the probe reached its destination, any life would take many billions of years to mature, Gros said.

seeding life
An artist rendering that conveys rapid-flyby of exoplanets. Image credit: Hubble ESA

Gros’ initiative for seeding life throughout the cosmos, dubbed the Genesis Project, forces us to step back and take a look at what we’re doing on Earth.

“If you are rational, you cannot argue a longterm project will have use on Earth, because no one will be around,” Gros said.

To Gros, his hypothetical mission ultimately forces humanity to consider a metaethical question. The most natural ethical system for our species is one that places us in the center, and that’s largely how we live. But do we need to follow this imperative 100 percent of the time? Gros doesn’t think so.

“An ethical system which is 99 percent humanity-centered is enough to build a thriving civilization, with the remaining 1 percent allowing us to pursue ‘non-rational’ projects like the Genesis project,” he told Futurism.

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The ExoLife Finder Telescope Could Revolutionize the Search for Life on Exoplanets

A new revolutionary telescope is in the works that would lessen the cost of studying exoplanets, but it needs more funding to come to fruition.

Enter the ExoLife Finder (ELF) telescope from The PLANETS Foundation, which will be capable of viewing exoplanets 24 light years (120 trillion miles) away from Earth, detecting the energy signatures of life, and imaging oceans and continents. So far we’ve only been able to estimate the likelihood of oceans and continents’ presence, which is still hypothetical. This easily goes far beyond the aspirations of any other exoplanet-hunting telescope yet in service, and could thus move our search for life out there a few terms further in the Drake Equation.

After ELF’s construction, its first target will be Proxima b, an exoplanet in the Proxima Centauri star system discovered last year by the European Space Observatory —  the Alpha Centauri A and B star systems will also be investigated for other Earth-like planets.

ELF isn’t the first telescope The PLANETS Foundation has worked on. There’s the Colossus telescope — set to be the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope designed to detect extrasolar and extraterrestrial life; then there’s the PLANETS telescope — a telescope designed to study faint environments such as the atmosphere of bright exoplanets, bio-signatures on potentially habitable exoplanets, and exo-atmospheres of planets in our solar system.

The ExoLife Finder telescope has 19 days remaining before its fundraising campaign ends. Should it meet its goal, it will be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile alongside the Colossus. The PLANETS telescope, meanwhile, will be built atop the Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii.

The post The ExoLife Finder Telescope Could Revolutionize the Search for Life on Exoplanets appeared first on Futurism.


Here’s Your Critical Guide to the Hospitable Earth-Like Exoplanets

There’s a vital human desire to discover and explore other planets like Earth, so the plenum of candidate Earth-like planets is fitting. As of July 2017, there are 3,500 confirmed exoplanets, with the tally of Earth-like candidates just under 300. Once the fringe-dream of groups like SETI, the 21st century has seen world-shattering (literally) progress towards the ultimate goal of confirming the existence of another rocky planet hospitable to human life. We know their distances from Earth, their respective masses, we’ve come close to determining their surface temperature, and even used cutting-edge chemistry to interpolate their elemental composition and age.

Before diving in, it’s worth noting we’ve yet to find a ride capable of transporting us hundreds of light-years through interstellar space, sans the decades-(if not centuries)-long transit. Nevertheless, finding an extra-solar home-away-from-home has become one of the most popular scientific fields in the world. The first exoplanet in stellar orbit was discovered in 1995. And, there seems to be no end to the dozens of Earth-like exoplanets discovered over the years since NASA’s Kepler program began in 2009. Indeed, a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory and NASA led to the discovery of TRAPPIST-1, a star system hosting an astonishing seven Earth-size exoplanets.

In order to qualify for the coveted habitable list, these planets have to be located within the “habitable zone” – the differential diameter around a star wherein the range of surface temperatures allow liquid water to subsist. So without further delay, here are some of the closest candidates for humanity’s next home.

Gliese 667Cc (Discovered in 2011)

Source Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gliese 667 Cc is an exoplanet of the red dwarf star called Gliese 667 C. At 23.62 light-years away, it can be found in the Scorpius constellation, and was found to have a mass that is over three-and-a-half times that of Earth. It was found to be over two billion years old, with a surface temperature of 277 K (4.3 Celsius).

Since it’s tidally locked, one side of Gliese 667 Cc receives no sunlight, while the other lives in permanent day under its parent star, Gliese 667 C. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the exoplanet receives 90 percent of the energy from its star compared to what Earth gets from the Sun, making it theoretically suitable for human life, although not enough is known about its atmosphere to be certain.

With more mass, the gravitational pull is be 60% higher than on Earth, plus a thick atmosphere, causing atmospheric pressure to be several hundred times greater. But could there be life? According to the institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, only species that tolerate extreme conditions like the tardigrade could survive.

Kepler-22b (Discovered in 2011)

Source Image: NASA/Ames JPL-Caltech

620 light-years away, Kepler-22b orbits the habitable zone of the Kepler-22 system — a star system that shares a lot of similarities with ours. It has an orbital period of 290 days, and a surface temperature of -12 C, assuming it has no atmosphere. The radius is 2.4 times that of Earth, but its composition is still unknown.

Kepler-186f (Discovered in 2014)

Image Source: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered its first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star in 2014. Unlike the other planets, exoplanets and stars, Kepler-186f is roughly the same size as Earth (only about 10% larger), although its exact composition and mass are not yet known. It is 558 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus and has an orbital length of 130 days. It only receives one third of the energy from its star than what Earth receives from the Sun, making it considerably colder.

Kepler 452-b (Discovered in 2015)

Image Source: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

It orbits its host star in 385 days, is 60% bigger than Earth (often dubbed “super-Earth”) and receives roughly the same amount of energy from its star compared to Earth and the Sun. But considering its age (estimated at 1-3 billion years older than the Sun), its surface temperature is assumed to be too high for human habitation.

As for the possibility of surface-dwelling life, Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center says: “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

The TRAPPIST-1 System (Discovered in 2017)

Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s only 40 light-years away, but the exoplanet system called TRAPPIST-1 remains a pretty big mystery. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made the announcement in February of 2017, stating that they have found the most Earth-size planets (seven to be precise) orbiting a single star to have ever been discovered. They are all within the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 star, allowing for the existence of liquid water.

Although their densities remain unknown, these exoplanets are so close to each other that — with feet firmly planted on one of their surfaces — you might see geographical features of a neighboring planets simply by looking up at the sky. However, all the TRAPPIST-1’s planets are tidally locked, creating weather systems and temperature fluctuations very difficult, if not impossible, to live in.

Proxima Centauri b (Discovered in 2016)

Image Source: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Roughly the size of Earth and only four light-years away, there’s still much to learn about Proxima Centauri b, a new planet orbiting one of three stars that make up the greater Proxima Centauri system. At 1.3 times the mass of Earth, Proxima b’s year lasts a mere 11 Earth-days.

Since its atmosphere is still unknown, we don’t know if it can have liquid water. But its exceptional status as the closest, Earth-like planet remains for now unchallenged.

The More to Come

Image Source:  Gabriel Pérez/SMM (IAC)

In June 0f 2017, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope team officially added another 219 newly discovered planets to its catalog, ten of which were found within the habitable zone. About 50 of them are about the size of Earth, substantially extending the list of potentially habitable exoplanets.

One of these ten planets potentially-habitable planets is a super-Earth that orbits around GJ 625 — a red dwarf 21 light-years away. GJ 625 b mass is 2.82 times Earth’s. Though the surface is likely Earth-like and rocky, we’ve yet to gather the sufficient data to determine its status on this growing list of candidates for extraterrestrial life.

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New Studies Indicate Life on TRAPPIST-1’s Exoplanets Might be Impossible

The discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, which is around 40 light years away from our solar system, has piqued the interest of astronomers and alien hunters alike. What’s even more interesting is that three of these exoplanets are located within the star’s habitable zone. That must indicate there’s a high possibility of life there, right?  

The Science of Searching for Exoplanets [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

Well, not necessarily: two recent studies show that being located in the TRAPPIST-1 system’s habitable zone, isn’t enough to secure life. One study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology points out that these exoplanets are constantly bombarded by radiation. “Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” researcher Abraham Loeb said in a press release. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”

The exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are also closer to their star compared to the distance between planets in our solar system and the Sun. For example, the farthest TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet is only about 9 million kilometers (5.6 million miles) away from the star — while Mercury is about 58 million km (36 million miles) from the Sun.

According to the second study, published in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, this relatively small distance could have connected the exoplanets to TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field and allowed for stellar winds to hit their surfaces. These conditions could result in strong atmospheric stripping and evaporation and should be taken into account for any realistic assessment of the evolution and habitability of the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” the study said.

Life on TRAPPIST-1, it seems, is more difficult that we previously imagined.

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EVE Online launches the virtual expedition for real exoplanets

As we reported previously, a new minigame has been in the works for EVE Online that will allow players to help scientists discover actual exoplanets. Now the game, named Project Discovery, has officially launched and pilots of the expansive space MMORPG can finally do their part for science. EVE Online’s creators, the Icelandic indie game company CCP (my countrymen!) teamed up with the University of Reykjavík, University of Geneva and Michel Mayor — winner of 2017 Wolf Prize for Physics and discoverer of the first exoplanet known to man. Project Discovery is basically scientific crowdsourcing where EVE Online players can review astronomical…

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EVE Online starts putting players to work finding exoplanets

EVE Online has finally launched the Project Discovery mini-game it announced earlier this year, and you know what that means? You can now defend all the hours you spend in the game by telling your mom or SO that you're helping the scientific communit…
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PLATO Deep-Space Observatory Will Search for Exoplanets and Alien Life

Searching the Stars

The European Space Agency’s Science Programme Committee has approved the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission to move into the construction phase. They aim to launch this deep-space observatory in 2026 with the goal of “discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths orbiting Sun-like stars in the habitable zone” — although it “could eventually lead to the detection of extraterrestrial life,” according to a University of Warwick press release.

The observatory will have 26 telescopes on board and will be launched 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) into space, where, according to a mission summary, it will conduct “Ultra-high precision, long (up to several years), uninterrupted photometric monitoring in the visible band of very large samples of bright (mV ≤11) stars.” This will provide unprecedented data on distant planets.

Image Credit: European Space Agency
Image Credit: C. Carreau / European Space Agency

The project will be undertaken by the University of Warwick, England, and includes an important follow-up aspect for verifying PLATO’s data. PLATO’s resolution will not be high enough to tell conclusively when it is detecting an exoplanet, so researchers will need to check the readings to be sure they are not indicating noise or a different spacial anomaly before more resources are committed to investigating that part of space.

The Pantheon Plato Will Join

PLATO will be one of two missions that explicitly seek habitable planets in the galaxy — the other being Kepler, which worryingly went into emergency mode in 2015. Kepler has now detected 4,034 planets, of which 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of the roughly 50 candidates that are near-Earth size and orbit in habitable zones, more than 30 have been verified as capable of supporting life.

The Science of Searching for Exoplanets [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has also been detecting hospitable worlds, but this was not its primary function — instead its aim, as stated on the NASA website, is to “observe astronomical objects and phenomena more consistently and with better detail than generally attainable from ground-based observatories,” which can include nebula, galaxies, and black holes.

The main agency in charge of another form of cosmic exploration — the search for alien life — is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence institute (SETI). While SETI has no satellites in space, it is attempting to communicate with extraterrestrial life by building huge radio transmitters and receivers, which include the Southern SERENDIP and the Allen Telescope Array. With all of these eyes on the sky, it may be just a few years until we discover alien life.

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