A new research technique developed in collaboration by Japanese and New Zealand astronomers could introduce a better way to spot Earth-like planets. Through MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics), researchers say the new method could measure planets that fall out of the Sun-Earth distance scale—planets that would be much cooler than what NASA’s Kepler telescope currently calculates—and possibly unveil up to 100 billion new planets similar to ours.
Researchers have previously struggled to spot possible habitable planets because of their proximity to Sun-like stars, which makes them difficult to spot.
Whereas Kepler measures the loss of light from a star when a planet orbits between us and the star, microlensing measures the deflection of light from a distant star that passes through a planetary sysem en route to Earth—an affect predicted by Einstein in 1936.
Astronomers have thus far successfully used microlensing to discover planets the size of Neptune and Jupiter, which are both enormous compared to Earth. For scale, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot alone is large enough to engulf several Earths. Detecting smaller Earth-like planets on such a large scale would require many robotic telescopes to monitor the data, and measures are already being taken around the globe to deploy such a network.
If that’s the case, astronomers could very likely discover many more Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy. Are there 100 billion of them out there? Who knows. But the possibility just shows how incredibly small we are amongst it all.