Back in January of 2010, the Kepler Space Telescope was checking out a four-planet system called KOI-94, when it noticed something weird. Additional observations and recent analysis suggest that what Kepler saw was a double exoplanet transit, and since nobody's ever seen this before, astronomers have had to invent a brand new term to describe it: behold, an exosyzygy.
We love exoplanets here at DVICE. We just can't get enough of 'em. Over the last few years, astronomers have found a whole bunch of new worlds, some of which are potentially habitable by alien life, and a few of which may even be habitable by humans. But what exactly does "habitable" mean? What is it that we're looking for? The easy thing to say is that we're looking for a planet exactly like Earth, but really, it's a complicated question with a much more nuanced answer.
Our galaxy is a big place, but that doesn't mean we don't have any neighbors. There are a handful of stars close enough to Earth to be potential targets for exploration within our lifetimes. The hope was that one of the closest of these, Barnard's Star, just might have a habitable planet in orbit, but new observations show no signs of anything at all.
To date, the Kepler space telescope has probably identified at least 2,299 planets orbiting around other stars. 2,299 planets is a lot of planets, obviously, but this simulation that puts every single last one of them in orbit around the same star is a very visual, albeit very implausible, way of illustrating how many planets are out there.
We all grow up fantasizing about vaporizing the Earth, but only one of us gets to be the first to make it happen, and trust me, the rest of y'all are running out of time. In lieu of doing the real thing, some planetary scientists at are running Earth vaporizing simulations to help them figure out what alien worlds are made of.
We're big fans of the Gliese 581 system here at DVICE. It's been a treasure-trove of potentially habitable exoplanets, and the latest data boosts one of them, Gliese 581g, up to a whopping 0.92 on the Earth Similarity Index. Yes, we now have one of those.
This picture shows what Seattle would look like if it had been built on the surface of Kepler-36b, a newly-discovered exoplanet. Rising behind the city (where everyone is probably long dead from the heat) is a second planet, Kepler-36c, which is the size of Neptune but somehow orbits its sun only about five times farther away than the moon is from us.
The best looks that we've been able to get at exoplanets are when they pass in front of or behind their parent stars. When that happens, sometimes, if we're lucky, we can get a brief hint atmosphere. For the first time, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has managed to observe a "super-Earth" directly, watching it glow in the infrared.
As part of its plan to harvest asteroids, Plantary Resources is going to be launching a [insert collective noun for telescopes here] of space telescopes. Whenever they're not busy finding asteroids made of solid gold, we might be able to use them to snap actual pictures of exoplanets around other stars.
NASA's 2013 budget is slashing planetary science by $300 million dollars. This is the money that we use to send space probes to other planets, and ultimately, the money we'd use to get human to Mars and beyond. The planetary science community response? A nationwide car wash and bake sale. Really.