NASA and Google announced Thursday that a collaboration using advanced computer analysis of existing data has discovered two new planets in distant star systems, one of which is part of the first star system found with as many planets as our own solar system. The development was detailed in a report by Reuters on Thursday, by Paresh Dave.
Researchers from Google and the University of Texas at Austin used machine learning to process NASA data more efficiently than has been possible for humans. The discovery has raised hopes among scientists that this technique could lead to further insights.
By inputting thousands of data points into their software, its AI “neural network” was able to differentiate between planets and other celestial objects with 96 percent accuracy. Using data from NASA’s Kepler telescope, it analyzed roughly 670 stars, identifying the new planets, Kepler 80g and Kepler 90i. Kepler 90i is the 8th planet discovered in its star system, the first time astronomers have discovered that number of planets in a system other than our own. The planet orbits the star Kepler 90, 2,545 light-years away from Earth.
NASA project scientist Jessie Dotson, of the Kepler telescope project, said:
“As the application of neutral networks to Kepler data matures, who knows what might be discovered. I’m on the edge of my seat.”
Researchers such as Google AI researcher Christopher Shallue, and University of Texas astronomer Andrew Vanderburg, say they will use their AI based approach to analyze data from the Kepler telescope on more than 150,000 other stars.
Dramatic advances in AI and machine learning have allowed such systems to take new roles evaluating data in finance, science, and other areas. Until now, machine learning had not been used to review data from the Kepler telescope. Shallue says he was inspired to explore the possibilities, explaining:
“In my spare time, I started Googling for ‘finding exoplanets with large data sets’ and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available. Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”
The Kepler telescope was launched in 2009 on a mission to discover new planets. It is expected to run out of fuel next year, ending the almost decade-long mission. It has discovered more than 2,300 exoplanets since the mission began.
NASA’s Paul Hertz, astrophysics director at their headquarters in Washington D.C, said in a written statement:
“Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them. This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”