For many, the fascination with space can be traced back to several key moments: Seeing Sputnik orbit overhead, sending Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd into space, watching Neil Armstrong take those fateful small steps. And if you’re under 40, that stuff is all in the history books—space shuttle launches were routine growing up, but we had Star Wars to expand our imagination. Our dreams of space travel went far beyond the moon, to other solar systems
Our dream was to be Han Solo.
We’re still working on the hyperspace travel part, but we do at least have targets once we develop it. Exoplanets (planets that are outside of our sun’s orbit) were first identified in the early nineties. The first leap forward was the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which discovered about a hundred planets. This was then followed by the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009. Since then, it has discovered thousands of exoplanets in our Milky Way galaxy (which will someday be called the Samsung Galaxy in a sponsoring deal, I’m sure). Like so many scientific advances, Kepler detects planets using a very simple principle: It observes the brightness of stars, and looks for decreases in that brightness as a planet passes in front of it. Complicated math can then be used to calculate the size of the planet’s orbit, the planet’s mass, its distance from the star, and the temperature on the planet’s surface. This can help estimate whether a planet is in the same habitable “Goldilocks” zone as Earth—Humans are really needy about “having liquid water” and “not dying from heat or cold exposure.”
Recently, an eighth planet was discovered around a star called Kepler-90 (they’re tracking thousands of stars, cut them some slack on creativity with names). The most recently discovered planet, Kepler-90i (if you noticed that i is the ninth letter, the names start with b), is small and rocky, similar to Mercury. You know what? Let’s call him Wilbur. Two things make the discovery of Wilbur so interesting
— It’s the first time a system’s planet tally has equaled that of our own solar system, and it’s the first time artificial intelligence has been used to discover a planet. Pattern recognition software at Google analyzed data from Kepler to look for dips in light emission that had previously gone unnoticed by human eyes. After being trained on 15,000 signals that astronomers had previously examined, the software was able to correctly identify which dips in light from stars were planets
Machine learning is certainly technology to keep an eye on, particularly in areas involving pattern recognition. It is also being applied to find tumors on MRI scans and identify genes sequences. And governments are using facial recognition to [REDACTED].
Huh, why can’t I type [REDACTED]?
[REDACTED] you, CIA!