Our Planet-Hunting Skills

They’ve improved:

Planets

Joseph Stromberg passes along the above GIF on the 736 planets we’ve identified so far this year:

That fact alone is remarkable. But it’s even more amazing when you consider that we didn’t find a single one of these exoplanets until 1989, and only found 1045 of them in total in the 23 years following that. … The Kepler space telescope — which orbits the sun, taking high-resolution images of distant stars so scientists can look for planets surrounding them — was responsible for these 715 planets [announced at once], along with 246 planets announced at other times, including the potentially Earth-like planet announced last week.

Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope was shut down in May 2013, because of an equipment failure. It’s not collecting any more data, so we probably can’t look forward to such ginormous hauls of new planets in the next few years.

Megan Garber has more:

A couple of years ago, I talked with Geoff Marcy, the astronomer whose work identifying habitable-zone exoplanets has earned him the nickname of “the planet hunter.” When he started searching for exoplanets in the 1990s, Marcy told me, that search had the air of the quixotic about it. The Times, at the time, noted that “a few skeptics still question whether these objects, called exoplanets, qualify as true planets.”

Marcy put it more bluntly: “Everybody,” he said, “said I was crazy.”

Update from a reader, who quotes Stromberg:

Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope was shut down in May 2013, because of an equipment failure. It’s not collecting any more data, so we probably can’t look forward to such ginormous hauls of new planets in the next few years.

This is incorrect on a few points. The telescope was not shut down; it continues to take data! The equipment failure ended its nominal mission because it could no longer reliably point at its appointed targets, but it is now looking at different stars, and will continue to do so if NASA decides to keep funding it (fingers crossed).

There actually may be similarly ginormous hauls of planets in the near future for another reason, as well: Of the more than 4,000 planet candidates Kepler has already discovered, some 3,700 remain to be validated in addition to the 736 that created tat big spike in your animated GIF. We’re still working on the rest!