Home SCIENCE How the Solar System led planet-hunters astray | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Jul, 2024

How the Solar System led planet-hunters astray | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Jul, 2024


What do planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, look like? A variety of possibilities are shown in this illustration. Scientists discovered the first exoplanets in the 1990s. As of 2024, the tally stands at over 5,000 confirmed exoplanets. None are known to be inhabited, but a few raise tantalizing possibilities: largely among the Earth-sized planets, but not among the larger ones. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The structure of our Solar System has been known for centuries. When we finally started finding exoplanets, they surprised everyone.

When you look to the glittering points of light in the night sky — the stars visible to the naked eye — do you wonder, as so many have before you, about the planets that orbit around them, and what types of conditions they have on them? How many worlds do they have, and are they rocky, icy, or gas-dominated in nature? What types of elements and chemical compounds are abundant on them, and do they have atmospheres, precipitation, and liquids on or beneath their surfaces? And, like we see on Earth, is it possible that there are life forms on any of those worlds, and if so, how are they similar to or different from life on our own planet?

Back in the year 1600, Giordano Bruno was infamously burned at the stake for asking such questions and suggesting creative answers; just a few years later, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would overthrow the geocentric picture of our Solar System and demonstrate that the Earth was not stationary and unmoving, but rather revolved around the Sun like any of the other planets. As time progressed, additional discoveries, like the law of gravitation, new planets, asteroids and periodic…

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