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NASA, Google AI spot eighth planet in solar system rivaling ours

The same kind of Google AI that identifies fluffy pets in photos reveals more about a distant solar system that's now tied our record.

Now playing: Watch this: AI helps NASA discover two new planets

This artist's illustration shows what the planets of Kepler-90 might look like.

NASA/Wendy Stenzel

Google isn't just good for finding cat videos on the internet. The search giant's machine learning technology is also helping search the universe for planets outside our solar system. 

NASA on Thursday revealed the discovery of blazing-hot exoplanet Kepler-90i thanks to the use of a Google neural network trained to identify planets from the NASA Kepler space telescope's data. It's the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, which ties it with our own solar system for the most known planets around a single star. Kepler-90 is a sun-like star located around 2,545 light-years from us. 

Prior to Thursday's press conference, we already knew Google AI senior software engineer Christopher Shallue and University of Texas astronomer Andrew Vanderburg have been working on using neural networks to better identify planets (PDF) from Kepler data. Thursday's reveal shows, for the first time, that the concept works. 

Now playing: Watch this: AI helps NASA discover two new planets

Shallue says the neural network used for the discovery is very similar to what Google uses to identify cats and dogs from Google Photos. "Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can't search it for themselves," he says

NASA's Kepler launched in 2009 on a mission to seek out exoplanets and it has since gathered evidence of planets that may be able to host alien life

Kepler spots exoplanets by looking for a dip in brightness as the planet transits its star during its orbit. When Kepler spots what might be a planet, astronomers then go to work to verify the observations. So far, scientists have confirmed around 2,500 exoplanets, with 30 of those potentially being Earth-like planets located within their stars' habitable zones where liquid water could exist.  

The researchers taught the neural network to identify planets by feeding it information from 15,000 signals from Kepler's catalog that already have been vetted by scientists. The neural network also discovered another exoplanet, the Earth-size Kepler-80g, the sixth planet found in the Kepler-80 system.

Vanderburg says he expects we'll find more stars hosting a number of planets and that Kepler-90 might even have more than eight planets. 

The researchers will continue to refine the neural network and plan to use it to study the full set of Kepler data, which includes information collected from over 150,000 stars. Expect many more interesting Kepler discoveries ahead. We may soon be kissing goodbye our solar system's record -- at the moment, tied -- for the most known planets around a single star.

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