By Amanda Kooser, C|Net
Collect them all. NASA JPL announced a cosmic milestone on Monday with the confirmed discovery of more than 5,000 exoplanets. A new batch of 65 planets located outside our solar system joined the NASA Exoplanet Archive, triggering a celebratory mood.
“It’s not just a number,” Exoplanet Archive science lead Jessie Christiansen said in a statement. “Each one of them is a new world, a brand new planet. I get excited about every one because we don’t know anything about them.”
The first exoplanets were confirmed in the early 1990s, which means we’ve set an impressive pace for discovery. NASA announced the planet count had hit 4,000 in June 2019 and it took less than three years to add another thousand to that haul.
We can thank the tireless work of researchers and the data collected by missions like the now retired Kepler Space Telescope and the currently operating Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) for finding all these distant planets.
Scientists aren’t just looking for exoplanets for the fun of it (though it is fun). They’re also looking for signs some of the planets might be habitable. The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope is expected to tell us a lot more about exoplanets and their atmospheres.
“To my thinking, it is inevitable that we’ll find some kind of life somewhere — most likely of some primitive kind,” said astronomer Alexander Wolszczan, lead author of the breakthrough study on the first confirmed exoplanets from three decades ago.
We haven’t definitively found an Earth clone yet, but the exoplanets spotted so far range from rocky worlds like ours to jumbo gas giants bigger than Jupiter. While 5,000 is an impressive number, it’s just a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Said NASA, “We do know this: Our galaxy likely holds hundreds of billions of such planets.”
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