What did you do today? If your job involves working with the Kepler telescope, the answer may be a nonchalant “Oh, I just announced the discovery of 715 new planets.”
This is a great announcement. The 715 planets are located in 305 solar systems. The vast majority of them are smaller than the planet Neptune, giving us a big bump in the number of “small-sized” planets (though Neptune is four times larger than Earth).
So how many of those planets are Earth-like and located within the so-called Goldilocks zone (the region of orbit around a star at which we think it’s possible for life as we know it to exist)? That would be four, which may sound negligible but it’s actually a big deal.
The real news here is that scientists have verified these 715 planets. The actual discovery happened during Kepler’s first two years of operation (2009 to 2011). But gathering data and sifting through it to find meaning are two different things. It takes a long time to analyze information and draw conclusions. If anything, this story serves as an illustration of why the era of Big Data presents such a challenge — making sense of all the information we gather isn’t a small task.
There are many more potential planets — called candidates — that scientists could verify as actual planets and not just blips in the data. Kepler has already discovered more than 3,600 candidates. Maybe Earth’s long-lost twin is just waiting for verification in a sea of data!