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We Didn't Officially Confirm the Existence of Exoplanets Until 1992

Humans have wondered about far-off planets since antiquity. Waxing on about possible alien worlds is much different than nailing down concrete evidence for them, however. This may come as a shock to you, but science couldn't confirm the existence of exoplanets until 1992. You know, the year "Wayne's World" came out.

WHAT ARE THOSE?!

Exoplanets are planets that sit outside our solar system. (Sorry, Pluto isn't a planet or an exoplanet.) We weren't able to say for sure these worlds existed until 1992, a year that seems shockingly recent given how far we've already come since then. On January 9, 1992, astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail published a paper in Nature announcing their landmark discovery of two exoplanets swirling around a nearby pulsar (a rapidly rotating star corpse).

Wolszczan and Frail used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to make their discovery near pulsar PSR B1257+12 in the constellation Virgo, about 2,300 light-years away. The first two exoplanets to ever been introduced to humanity were PSR1257+12c and PSR1257+12d. They now have the official — and super metal — names Poltergeist and Phobetor. Both of these big boys are about four times as massive as Earth.

The authors noted in the study that their discovery "raises the tantalizing possibility that a non-negligible fraction of neutron stars observable as radio pulsars may be orbited by planet-like bodies." Translation? There's (probably) much more where that came from, baby!

TRAPPIST-1

Planets. Planets, Everywhere.

Turns out, science has been really busy since 1992. It didn't take long for scientists to learn that Poltergeist and Phobetor aren't the only exoplanets on the block. As of October 5, 2017, NASA reports that 3,529 planets have been confirmed. Don't believe us? You can basically get the whole life story of each one in this exhaustive table. (Plenty of the exoplanets we've found so far are very, very strange.) Not only that, we've confirmed 585 multi-planet systems, too.

But getting excited over just finding exoplanets is so last century. In more recent news, astronomers are discovering exoplanets that sit in the Goldilocks zone. That means, say it with us, ALIENS. Okay, we're jumping to conclusions here, but record-breaking discoveries like 2017's TRAPPIST-1 revealed a treasure trove of habitable-zone, Earth-size planets ever. Hats off to NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope on that one. With the intensely powerful James Webb Telescope, slated to launch in 2018, the mind-blowing discoveries will only keep getting more mind-blowing.

Exoplanets

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The first confirmed exoplanets were found orbiting a pulsar in 1992. 02:03

  2. Hot Jupiters are gas giants that orbit very close to their star. 04:30

  3. During a transit, a planet passes in front of its star, letting Earth astronomers detect a dip in the star's brightness. The amount of light blocked tells you the planet's size. 05:52

Written by Joanie Faletto November 5, 2017