NASA Confirms 5,000 Planets Exist Beyond Our Solar System, Each One A New World

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A 30 year journey of exploring beyond our own solar system has led to the discovery of over 5,000 exoplanets, as confirmed by NASA yesterday. The count surpassed the 5,000 milestone after the latest batch of 65 exoplanets were added to the NASA Exoplanet Archive.

While the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe may still be unanswered, the fact that there are many other planets out there is not. NASA confirmed yesterday that the growing number of exoplanets, planets outside our immediate solar system, has grown to over 5,000. The 5,000-plus planets include small, rocky planets like Earth, gas giants that are many times larger than Jupiter, and others that orbit super close around their own stars.

"It's not just a number," exclaimed Jessie Christiansen, Science Leader for the Archive and a research scientist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech in Pasadena. "Each one of them is a new world, a brand-new planet. I get excited about every one because we don't know anything about them."

Scientists and researchers believe it is likely that our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of exoplanets. It all began in 1992, when a neutron star known as a pulsar was discovered with "strange new worlds" orbiting around it. A pulsar is a intensely magnetized rotating neutron star that sends out beams of electromagnetic radiation from its magnetic poles. By measuring slight changes in the timing of pulses, scientists were able to unveil the planets in orbit around the pulsar. Scientists and researchers now believe it is likely that our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of exoplanets.

Alexander Wolszczan, lead author on the paper 30 years ago, said that finding these three planets essentially opened the floodgates. "If you can find planets around a neutron star, planets have to be basically everywhere," stated Wolszczan. "The planet production process has to be very robust."

Those floodgates are expected to get inundated with even more discoveries in the near future. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in 2018, is continuing to make discoveries. However, more powerful next-generation telescopes with extremely sensitive instruments are about to be added to the hunt. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will soon be capturing light from the atmospheres of exoplanets, and hopefully giving more insight as to whether or not those planets have habitable conditions. As Wolszczan says, we are opening an era of discovery that will go far beyond solely adding new planets to a list.

In 2027, another space telescope will launch into space and begin revealing more about the universe. The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will bring new methods of discovering exoplanets. Then in 2029, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch ARIEL. That mission expects to observe exoplanet atmospheres, while utilizing a piece of NASA technology called CASE that will help study exoplanet clouds and haze.

"To my thinking, it is inevitable that we'll find some kind of life somewhere, most likely of some primitive kind," Wolszczan said. With all the technology that is being launched into space to explore and unveil the mysteries of the universe, it is hard to imagine not finding signs of life if they do exist. It is an exciting time to be living in indeed.

Top Image Courtesy of NASA/JPL