Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light-years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.
The newly-discovered Kepler-90i – a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days – was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers “learn.”
In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded signals from planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.
The discovery came about after researchers trained a computer to learn how to identify exoplanets in the light readings recorded by Kepler – the minuscule change in brightness captured when a planet passed in front of, or transited, a star.
Inspired by the way neurons connect in the human brain, this artificial “neural network” sifted through Kepler data and found weak transit signals from a previously-missed eighth planet orbiting Kepler-90, in the constellation Draco.
While machine learning has previously been used in searches of the Kepler database, this research demonstrates that neural networks are a promising tool in finding some of the weakest signals of distant worlds.
Other planetary systems probably hold more promise for life than Kepler-90. About 30 percent larger than Earth, Kepler-90i is so close to its star that its average surface temperature is believed to exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, on par with Mercury. Its outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.