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Rob Sheldon: NASA’s big announcement about exoplanets”underwhelming”


A mere desire to support the notion that we are nothing special. At 1:00 pm ET, December 14 (yesterday), we were told by NASA:

NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data. More.

We finally caught up with our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon, and he is astounded at why this eighth Kepler planet is supposed to be a big deal:

That’s it??? A inside-Mercury-orbiting rock that is over 800 degrees hot? And the Google AI angle was just an algorithm that learned to do pattern recognition on Kepler-data?

I’m underwhelmed. So many other things NASA could talk about in a press release, and this is the best they can offer?

Of course AI can do pattern recognition! That’s how it beat the worlds best Go player. But according to NASA, this produced a lot of false-negatives as well, which had to be scanned by an experienced scientist. So evidently, AI is simply taking over the job previously done by undergraduates–filtering the raw data for promising leads. This isn’t exactly new, just cheaper than the previous alternative.

And an 8th planet in a system already possessing 7 planets isn’t exactly news. What makes NASA excited is that this is the first extrasolar system that has as many “planets” as our solar system, even if only after demoting Pluto, sorting through the 4500 other planets in the databae, and despite them being all uninhabitable. But this is supposed to boost the idea that we are slightly less unique than we were last week. You know, support for “The Copernican Principle” or something. It’s in the right direction, every day we get a little less unique until one day we will wake up and find aliens have taken over our space agency…

As to the “Copernican Principle,” see  Copernicus, you are not going to believe who is using your name. Or how.


What becomes of science when the evidence does not matter?

To recap: Time Zone Map. Live stream.

Lunar Sample 70215
lunar sample retrieved by Apollo 17/NASA

While we are analyzing… the US is planning more manned missions:

Background: From Fox:

Kepler launched in March 2009 at a time when scientists and NASA researchers did not know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Since the original mission was completed in 2012, Kepler confirmed 2,337 exoplanets and 4,496 potential candidates.

In 2014, Kepler started on a new mission, known as K2, to look for exoplanets and introduce “new research opportunities to study young stars, supernovae and other cosmic phenomena.”

From Metro UK:

Stargazers have found an eighth planet in distant system in Kepler 90, which has been named Kepler 90i. This is the first time a star system with as many planets as our our own solar system has been found way out in deep space. More.

From NASA:

Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

The newly-discovered Kepler-90i – a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days – was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers “learn.” In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded signals from planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

NASA will host a Reddit Ask Me Anything at 3 p.m. EST today on this discovery.

Also from NASA:

The president Monday signed at the White House Space Policy Directive 1, a change in national space policy that provides for a U.S.-led, integrated program with private sector partners for a human return to the Moon, followed by missions to Mars and beyond.

The policy calls for the NASA administrator to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.” The effort will more effectively organize government, private industry, and international efforts toward returning humans on the Moon, and will lay the foundation that will eventually enable human exploration of Mars.

“The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” said President Trump. “It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.” More. 

See also: Pretty discouraging news from exoplanet research: We’re not sure what to look for ( Note: Maybe that’ll change? )

Note: We republished this from yesterday, with Sheldon’s comments, to have it all in one place.  – News


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