May 15 – The Ides of Kepler

Today’s Factismal: The Kepler Satellite has discovered more than 960 planets circling stars as far away as 8,800 light years!

There is good news out of NASA. Last year, the last spare reaction wheel died and it looked as if the mission would end just shy of four years after it launched. (Though this may seem like a short time to folks outside of the astronomy community, it is actually about six months longer than originally planned.) But instead Kepler has proved the adage that you should never underestimate the ingenuity of a grad student or a NASA scientist; they have found a way to continue doing science despite the reaction wheel failure.

What they are now doing with the K2/Second Light program is using the presure exerted by sunlight to stabilize the spacecraft. Though it isn’t strong enough to allow Kepler to investigate planets around bright stars (where the dimming is smaller) it will allow the spacecraft to look for planets near the far more plentiful and dimmer red dwarfs. In addition, scientists (and citizen scientists) continue to study the backlog of data from the previous mission.

The locations of Kepler's discoveries as seen against the night sky

The locations of Kepler’s discoveries as seen against the night sky

Kepler's discoveries (exploded view)

Kepler’s discoveries (exploded view)

Kepler works by staring at stars and looking for the dimming caused by the transit of a planet across its face. To put the problem into scope, it is like trying to tell when a bird is flying across the sky by looking for its shadow from space. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, a really good telescope, and pinpoint concentration on a specific area.

So what has Kepler discovered during its time in space? For one thing, Kepler has discovered that planets are a lot more common than anyone other than a planetologist thought. We’ve seen planets around old, cold stars and planets around young, hot stars. We’ve seen planets close in and far away from their host star. We’ve seen stars with a single planet and stars with multiple planets. We’ve even seen a planet that could be Earth’s twin. In short, we’ve gotten our money’s worth.

If you’d like to see what we’ve discovered, then why not head over to the Kepler Data explorer?
http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/kepler/plots

And if you’d like to use Kepler (and other) data as you search for a planet to call your very own, then head over to:
https://www.zooniverse.org/project/planethunters

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