Did NASA discover alien life? The space agency is about to make a big announcement this week, unveiling the latest success of the Kepler space telescope, the most prolific exoplanet finder in history.
According to a NASA news release issued on Friday (December 8), the Kepler mission has hit a major breakthrough with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), and the space agency is eager to tell us all about it.
To that effect, NASA has called for a press teleconference on Thursday, December 14, at 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT), to share the massive discovery with the world.
The news release mentions AI as a key element in the epic find, noting its vital contribution to the latest Kepler encounter.
"The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google," NASA officials write in the media advisory.
"Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data," explains the news release.
The highly anticipated reveal, which has everyone talking about a possible breakthrough in the search for alien life, will be streamed online at NASA Live, as well as on Space.com.
NASA officials have announced the participation of Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA's Headquarters in Washington. Joining him will be Kepler project scientist Jessie Dotson, from NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
Also attending the teleconference on Thursday will be Christopher Shallue, senior software engineer at Google AI in Mountain View, California, and Andrew Vanderburg, astronomer and NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas, Austin.
On the day of the teleconference, which most likely will announce a major exoplanet discovery, Twitter is expected to be buzzing, as the space agency is encouraging the public to submit any questions regarding the big disclosure or the role of AI in the Kepler mission on the social media platform, under the hashtag #askNASA.
In a separate statement, also issued on Friday, the space agency detailed the importance of machine learning and AI in another area of interest, namely space communications.
NASA plans to upgrade its space communications networks by incorporating machine learning and AI into the "complex software" systems used to "support science and exploration missions" — a project known as cognitive radio.
"By applying artificial intelligence and machine learning, satellites control these systems seamlessly, making real-time decisions without awaiting instruction," explained Janette C. Briones, from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Nevertheless, we will have to wait until Thursday to learn exactly how artificial intelligence benefitted the Kepler mission.
The Kepler space telescope, NASA's top planet-finding instrument, is currently near the end of its second extended mission, after completing the first one in 2013. This second mission, named K2, aimed to continue the search for exoplanets, while also studying "young stars, supernovae and other cosmic phenomena."
So far, since its launch in 2009, the Kepler telescope has spotted more than 2,500 confirmed alien worlds, which represent about 70 percent of all known exoplanets. This impressive number could end up being doubled as soon as all the potential exoplanet "candidates" the telescope has discovered are confirmed by follow-up observations or analyses.