Space

NASA’s Kepler Uncovers a Trove of New Planets

This week at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA scientists announced the discovery of 234 new exoplanet candidates by the Kepler Spacecraft.

The announcement puts to bed any worry from astronomers that Kepler’s comeback wouldn’t be as productive as it has been in the past.

kepler-exoplanet

Artist impression of an Earth-like planet around a binary star system. Image credit: ESO/ L. Calcada

The 234 new candidates were distributed among 208 star systems and all were discovered as part of the K2 mission. Before this announcement, the K2 mission had officially confirmed 32 planets and identified just over 100 candidates. While these candidates aren’t confirmed yet, there’s a good chance most of them will be, according to Andrew Vanderburg, a Harvard astrophysicist who presented the findings.

The announcement solidifies the continued productivity of the Kepler mission. In May of 2013, the spacecraft had a malfunction in its stabilizing gear. No longer being able to maintain a steady focus, the mission was thought to be over. But NASA knew they still had a mostly fully functioning telescope, so they submitted a new proposal: the K2 mission.

habitable-exoplanets

The most habitable exoplanets discovered so far – includes Kepler 438b, which is the most Earth-like planet yet discovered. Image credit: University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Up until its malfunction, Kepler had stared at one fixed point in the sky, and it was working beautifully, having racked up 1,918 confirmed planets in that time. The K2 mission would take Kepler into unknown territory; the spacecraft would move across the plane of our solar system, observing different parts of the sky for about 80 days at a time. It was unclear if the re-purposing of some of Kepler’s instruments would work.

The telescope is currently on it’s eighth observational pit stop, and the new announcement proves the K2 mission is an enormous success. The discoveries are a testament to the scientists and engineers who brought Kepler back from the brink.

Scientists are excited about the K2 planets because they are generally much closer to Earth than the planets discovered in Kepler’s first run. This is not by accident – astronomers want to be prepared with many targets when new high-res telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope are launched.

With the next generation of space telescopes, scientists will likely be able to study the atmospheric composition of the planets and find concrete signs of life. So just maybe, we’ll get lucky and discover an Earth-twin right in our cosmic backyard.

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