MAUNA KEA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - An international team of 44 astronomers, including six from the University of Hawaii, discovered more than 100 new planets, including five Earth-like planets.
"They're between tens and hundreds of light years away, which sounds far away, but on a cosmic scale, they're basically in our backyard," Evan Sinukoff, graduate student at the UH Institute for Astronomy, said Monday in an interview on Hawaii News Now Sunrise. Sinukoff is among the six UH astronomers -- including Andrew Howard, B.J. Fulton, Christoph Baranec, Mike Liu and Kimberly Aller -- who helped in the discovery.
The five new planets, which orbit close to their host stars, range in size from smaller than Earth to larger than Jupiter. The planets appear to have sizes and temperatures similar to Earth, and though it's not clear if there's life on these planets, this groundbreaking discovery is a crucial first step in determining what they are made of.
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The new planets were discovered using NASA's Kepler space telescope, which is orbiting the sun on a mission to find Earth-like planets while mapping the universe. In its first four-year survey, the telescope revealed more than 4,000 planets. But after a malfunction to the spacecraft, engineers modified its mission so that it would scan a much larger portion of the Milky Way. As part of K2, the Kepler space telescope located the new planets from its first five fields in the sky.
"It was no longer able to point to the same patch of sky and look for planets where it had been searching for many years, but engineers devised a brilliant plan, so it was able to point at new patches of sky," Sinukoff said. "These new patches are where we're finding a ton of new planets, and many of these are nearby so we can study them in great detail."
Four telescopes on Mauna Kea – the twin telescopes of Keck Observatory, Gemini-North Telescope and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility – played crucial roles in confirming the new planets, contributing images and spectra of the planets' host stars. This helped verify that the planets are real and not spurious signals in the Kepler images.
The team is currently making more detailed measurements using Keck Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The new planets are also possible targets for the Thirty Meter Telescope and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.