The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Institute for Astronomy and the Maunakea observatories play a critical role in major astronomical discoveries. In July 2016, NASA and an international team of astronomers announced they identified 100 new planets, including five bearing similarities to Earth.
“These are planets that orbit stars, outside of our solar system, other stars,” said Assistant Astronomer Andrew Howard. “And we used the Kepler space telescope to discover these planets. And then we used four telescopes on Maunakea to characterize these planets and confirm that they are in fact real bonafide planets.”
The NASA Kepler space telescope is orbiting the sun on a mission to find Earth-like planets while mapping the universe. The 100 newly discovered planets add to the already-rich diversity of known worlds beyond our Solar System. In its current K2 mission, Kepler identified planetary candidates by focusing on four different sections of space for a period of three months each, looking for eclipses.
“So as the star stays fixed, the planet orbits in front of it casting a small shadow on the star and we see that shadow as the star dimming.”
A team of 44 astronomers from seven countries, including six from UH, took a closer look at these planetary candidates using the two Keck Telescopes, the Gemini Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, managed by UH on Maunakea.
“We used the various telescopes on Maunakea, four different telescopes on Maunakea, to confirm that these planet signals we think we see in the Kepler data are actually planets,” said Evan Sinukoff, IfA graduate student.
“This research, this discovery of a hundred planets, puts our Earth into context,” said Howard. “It places us in a cosmic context and shows us where we fit into the fabric of the universe.”
That fabric includes other potentially Earth-like planets, such as the five found among the 100 planets discovery. These planets appear to have sizes and temperatures similar to Earth.
“We of course can’t say whether or not these planets have life on them,” said Howard, “but this is one crucial check in the list of qualities needed for a planet that we think would be like the Earth and could possibly support life.”
“Now that we found these planets and we’ve confirmed that they’re there, the next step is to find out what these planets are made of,” said Sinukoff.
Astronomers at UH and around the world will focus on the most interesting of the newly discovered planets.
“To do this, we are going to use the best telescopes in this world and out of this world, the telescopes on Maunakea, as well as telescopes in space,” said Howard.