Over the past 16 years, astronomers have detected more than 700 confirmed exoplanets and have started to probe the spectra and atmospheres of these worlds. While studying the properties of individual exoplanets is undeniably valuable, a much more basic question remains: how commonplace are planets in the Milky Way?
Most currently known exoplanets were found either by detecting the effect of the gravitational pull of the planet on its host star or by catching the planet as it passes in front of its star and slightly dims it. Both of these techniques are much more sensitive to planets that are either massive or close to their stars, or both, and many planets will be missed.
An international team of astronomers has searched for exoplanets using a totally different method — gravitational microlensing — that can detect planets over a wide range of mass and those that lie much further from their stars.
Arnaud Cassan (Institut dʼAstrophysique de Paris), lead author of the Nature paper, explains: "We have searched for evidence for exoplanets in six years of microlensing observations. Remarkably, these data show that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy. We also found that lighter planets, such as super-Earths or cool Neptunes, must be more common than heavier ones."
“We used to think that the Earth might be unique in our galaxy. But now it seems that there are literally billions of planets with masses similar to Earth orbiting stars in the Milky Way,” concludes Daniel Kubas, co-lead author of the paper.
Billions of planets just in our galaxy alone. Amazing. And there are at least a hundred billion other galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars... I get a blue screen fatal error in my brain just thinking about it.
_________________________ "Other job markets may lay claim to the title, but astronomy is actually the world's oldest profession." - Phil Plait