NASA’s Kepler space telescope retires after discovering over 2,600 planets

02 November, 2018, 16:15 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • This illustration depicts NASA’s exoplanet hunter the Kepler space

NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz estimated that anywhere from two to a dozen of the planets discovered by Kepler are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks zone - the habitable area around a star where the temperature would permit existence of liquid water.

Kepler's data also provided a new way to assess whether a planet had a solid surface, like Earth and Mars, or is gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn.

"As NASA's first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

He remarked: "Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm".

The Kepler mission was named in honor of 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion.

Before retiring Kepler, NASA pushed the telescope to its fullest potential, and successfully completed many observations and downloaded the valuable data, after initial low fuel warnings. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.

Kepler showed us that "we live in a galaxy that's teeming with planets, and we're ready to take the next step to explore those planets", she said. Because Kepler stared at the same patch of sky with specialized instruments that read brightness of celestial objects, it was also able to capture undiscovered asteroids, supernova explosions, and galaxies with variable light output.

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Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, some mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. The end came just a few months shy of the 10th anniversary of Kepler's 2009 launch. NASA then started a new mission called K2.

Data pile After observing more than half a million stars over the course of the mission, Kepler's data has revealed that the most common exoplanet lies somewhere between the scale of Earth and Neptune. After 9 1/2 years in orbit, 530,506 stars observed and 2,662 planets around other stars discovered, the little spacecraft will be left to drift forever around the sun.

Many theories and experiments aspire to transform our view of the universe, but the Kepler mission actually did so. Kepler made the first major survey of planets within the Milky Way. According to NASA, TESS will divide the sky into 26 sectors to observe each one for at least 27 days. The first data from TESS is already being sent to Earth and analyzed.

Illustration of NASA's Kepler space telescope.

Unlike stars, planets do not emit light, so look for them much harder. JWST will take pictures in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes yet ideal for studying planets through the clouds of gas and dust in space that typically obscure distant worlds.

"It has changed the very understanding of our place in the Universe".

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