NASA and Google A.I. team up and discover a new planet

In what might be the biggest Google search of the decade, CNET reports that NASA has used Google’s machine learning technology to discover a new exoplanet.

Orbiting Kepler-90, a sun-like star 2,545 light years away from Earth, Kepler-90i is an extremely hot, rocky, and barren planet that orbits its star in 14.4 days. Aside from its extreme temperatures, the planet is notable for the fact that it is the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, making the system itself tied with ours in the number of planets which orbit a star.

Kepler-90i is also notable for the way in which it was discovered. NASA made use of Google’s machine learning to analyze data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope. The Kepler telescope collects more data than humans alone can analyze in a reasonable amount of time. By using Google’s machine learning technology, NASA was able to use A.I. to sift through the mass of data and search for signals that could indicate exoplanets.

“Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them,” NASA’s Paul Hertz said. “This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

Researchers  Christopher Shallue and Andrew Vanderburg trained Google’s A.I. to identify exoplanets by analyzing light readings recorded by Kepler. Light readings are tiny changes in brightness found when planets pass in front or transit a star. Machine learning has been used in conjunction with the Kepler data before, but this recent discovery marks a major milestone in NASA’s work with A.I.

Shallue, who is a senior software engineer at Google, said he became interested in using machine learning to search for planets when he learned how much data the Kepler telescope was collecting. Currently, Kepler’s four-year data set includes 35,000 potential planetary signals. NASA researchers work to identify the most promising leads, but it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to reliably search through so much data.

“In my spare time, I started googling for ‘finding exoplanets with large data sets’ and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available,” Shallue said. “Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”

For more information on Kepler-90i, check out NASA’s AMA, which it will be holding on Reddit on December 16 at 3 p.m. EST.