A whole new world: UCLA scientists find 366 new exoplanets

Found using a new algorithm, this discovery sheds light on more of the exoplanet population dotting the infinite reaches of space and can help us understand how planets fully form.

The planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System, is seen in an undated artist's impression.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
The planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System, is seen in an undated artist's impression.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have managed to identify 366 new exoplanets, giving humanity a better view of the many planets populating the infinite reaches of the cosmos.

This discovery, outlined in a peer-reviewed study published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical Astronomical Journal, managed to single out and identify a number of different worlds, including one especially unusual discovery: a star system with two gas giants around the size of Saturn, both of which were surprisingly close to their sun.

Exoplanet, as a term, designates planets outside Earth's solar system. Currently, fewer than 5,000 exoplanets have been identified, so this large collection of discovered worlds further advances our understanding of the greater cosmos, as well as our own solar system.

While no exoplanets can be visited yet, it remains something many scientists are eager to explore in the future. 

These discoveries were made possible due to an algorithm developed by lead author Dr. Jon Zink and his team known as the Scaling K2 project.

Based on a massive 500 terabytes of data gathered by the NASA Kepler Space Telescope's K2 mission, which was specifically meant to identify exoplanets, this algorithm is able to sift through signals to definitively identify which signals indicate planets, rather than simply interference.

This circumvents a major problem in identifying exoplanets. Normally, planets are identified by certain signals, specifically brightness. Stars give off light, which can be observed. Sometimes, however, that light will be blocked, which would mean something is between that star and an observer. One thing that could be blocking this star would be a planet, as it orbits around the star. However, any number of things such as asteroids, space debris and so on could also easily be to blame. Finding out which is which can be very difficult and incredibly time-consuming, but this algorithm has found a way around it.

The team managed to use the new algorithm and software meant for the K2 mission to scan through over 800 million images of stars, which will soon be incorporated into the NASA exoplanet archive.

Exoplanets were long theorized by scientists but were not properly discovered until the 1990s. Since then, though, the number of known exoplanets has continued to grow.

Previously discovered exoplanets range far and wide in terms of composition, size, categorization and a number of different factors. 

Some standout examples of the diverse range of exoplanets include Kepler-16b, a gas giant NASA compared to the famous Tatooine planet from Star Wars due to it also orbiting two suns; TOI-849b, what is believed to be the exposed core of a gas giant after it got to close to its star, whose radiation and heat possibly completely burned away its atmosphere; HD-189733b, an atmosphere with massive clouds filled with glass, flung by huge gusts of wind at speeds of 2 kilometers per second; KELT-9b, a world so hot that molecules are all ripped apart; TrES-2b, a planet reflecting such a small amount of light that it is literally darker than coal or black paint; and AU Microscopii b, a young planet constantly bombarded by X-rays and other blasts of radiation.

Other planets called rogue planets are even stranger, roaming independently throughout the galaxy without a defined orbit.

One exoplanet, HAT-P-9b, was even discovered by Israelis back in 2019.

However, there are many others out there, some of which are more stable and out of the ordinary, such as gas giants, massive rocky worlds and others covered in oceans of some kind.

Some of these planets are even located in the habitable zone, the part of a solar system that could determine if a planet is capable of hosting life.

Finding more exoplanets could help build a scientific understanding of how solar systems function, how they develop, what is needed for a planet to successfully form, and why our solar system is so vastly different to so many others.

This is why it remains a major focus in astronomy, and why finding 366 new planets with this new methodology is so important.

“Discovering hundreds of new exoplanets is a significant accomplishment by itself, but what sets this work apart is how it will illuminate features of the exoplanet population as a whole,” Erik Petigura, a UCLA astronomy professor and co-author of the research, said in a statement.

“I have no doubt they will sharpen our understanding of the physical processes by which planets form and evolve.”