Science and Technology
April 30, 2015
Do billions of Earth-like planets really exist?

Scientific breakthroughs have occurred at an astonishing rate in the past year. From outer space and the deep ocean to 3D printing and stem cell research, major advances are accelerating, in part, because of the widespread use of supercomputers. Their ability to rapidly process data and identify connections can lead to discoveries at previously unimaginable speeds. Plus, miniaturization of computer chips, faster computer processing speeds and the ability to store massive amounts of data have made it more affordable and easier for scientists to perform complex computations. Powerful new sharing software also allows scientists to jointly pursue the uncharted and undiscovered.

An employee of the University Hospital in Dijon, France, uses a computer with an attached 3D printer to reproduce a model of a surgical patient’s skull on March 12, 2014. Recent developments in software and regenerative medicine have allowed 3D printing technology to create structures from human cells. Scientists aim to eventually print ready-to-function organs made from living human tissue. (AFP/Getty Images/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek)   An employee of the University Hospital in Dijon, France, uses a computer with an attached 3D printer to reproduce a model of a surgical patient’s skull on March 12, 2014. Recent developments in software and regenerative medicine have allowed 3D printing technology to create structures from human cells. Scientists aim to eventually print ready-to-function organs made from living human tissue. (AFP/Getty Images/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek)

As of March 2015, scientists had discovered nearly 1,900 exoplanets — planets orbiting stars outside Earth’s solar system.1 NASA’s Kepler space telescope has spotted more than half of the planets, most of which are as big or bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in Earth’s solar system.2 Scientists estimated in 2013 that 40 billion habitable planets with Earth-like conditions could exist in the Milky Way.3

As discoveries proliferate, some phenomena— ringed planets, for example — turn out to be more common than once thought. One exoplanet, J1407b, discovered in 2012, is estimated to have 10 to 40 times Jupiter’s mass, and its massive ring system has a diameter of about 75 million miles. In January 2015 scientists announced that the planet’s ring system is approximately 200 times larger than Saturn’s.4 J1407b’s ring system, the first ever discovered outside Earth’s solar system, is believed to be made up of 37 rings, each measuring tens of millions of miles in diameter.

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