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Expand chart
Data: PHL’s Exoplanets Catalog. Note: Earth Similarity Index was introduced by Schulze-Makuch et al., Astrobiology, 2011. ESI is calculated with respect to a planet’s size and the energy received by its star; it is not necessarily a corollary for potential habitability. Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 3,000 "exoplanets" — planets that aren't in our solar system, orbiting stars other than our sun. The chart above shows how similar they are to Earth.

Why it matters: A small number of discovered exoplanets — those that are small enough to have a rocky surface and the right distance from their star to hold liquid water — may be able to support life, and provide clues about the evolution of our own planet.

The big picture: The first discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than the sun was only 30 years ago.

  • In 1988, scientists announced the discovery of a planet orbiting a pulsar nearly 5,000 light-years away.
  • Over the last three decades, the pace of discovery has only quickened: More than half of confirmed exoplanet discoveries have been announced in the last four years.

Most of the recent discoveries were detected by the Kepler space telescope, the first space-based telescope designed specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars. "Kepler was a complete game-changer," MIT astronomer Sara Seager told Axios.

  • That's why Seager is enthusiastic about analyzing the findings from Kepler's successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which was launched in April.
  • TESS searches for Earth-like planets in an area of the sky closer to Earth than where Kepler looked, making it easier for astronomers to later confirm the planets' existence by calculating their mass.

Since TESS began making observations in July, it has already made two confirmed exoplanet discoveries. Scientists expect it to make thousands more as it sends its findings back to Earth. "Every month we get a deluge of data," Seager said.

What's next: Neither TESS, nor Kepler, nor any of the massive land-based telescopes searching the galaxy for planets are able to capture actual images of exoplanets.

  • Instead, they detect their presence by measuring changes in their stars' light over time.

The bottom line: The technology for capturing even pixel-sized images of exoplanets — which would help scientists better assess whether their atmospheres are suitable for life — is still many years away.

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

The bomb cyclone and atmospheric river seen via satellite on Sunday. The center of the storm is at the middle of the comma shape, due west of Washington State. (CIRA/RAMMB)

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

Mike Allen, author of AM
5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Fauci fires back at Rand Paul for slam on tonight's "Axios on HBO"

Responding to charges by Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday's "Axios on HBO," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told "ABC This Week" that it's "molecularly impossible" for U.S.-funded bat virus research in China to have produced COVID-19.

Why it matters: The issue 0f Wuhan research was reignited on the right last week with a National Institutes of Health letter to Congress disclosing more about the research.

Manchin, Schumer huddle with Biden in Delaware to discuss spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and Sen. Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol in 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will meet with President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning in Delaware as Democrats look to reach an agreement on the massive spending measure.

Driving the news: Democrats are still negotiating what to keep in the bill and how to pay for it, with Biden saying on Thursday that the party does not have the votes to raise the corporate tax rate.

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