A new study estimates each of the over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way probably has at least one companion planet. Since 1994, astronomers have identified more than 700 planets in various solar systems, with another +2,000 candidates currently under review.
"Planets are the rule rather than the exception," said lead astronomer Arnaud Cassan at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris. He led an international team of 42 scientists who spent six years surveying millions of stars at the heart of the Milky Way, in the most comprehensive effort yet to gauge the prevalence of planets in the galaxy.
To estimate the number of other worlds, Dr. Cassan and his colleagues studied 100 million stars between 3,000 and 25,000 light-years from Earth with gravitational microlensing. The technique uses distant light amplified by the gravity of a massive star or planet to create an astronomical magnifying lens. Then they combined their findings with earlier surveys, which used other detection techniques, to create a statistical sample of stars and the planets that orbit them, which they say is representative of the galaxy.
Almost two-thirds of the stars likely host a planet measuring about five times Earth's mass, and half of them harbor a planet about the mass of Neptune, which is 17 times the mass of Earth. About one-fifth of them are home to a gas giant like Jupiter or a still more massive planet.