Kepler Mission

An illustration of Kepler

Kepler Mission

Scientists are searching for Earth-like planets with the Kepler space telescope. It works by detecting periodic variations in the brightness of stars caused by orbiting exoplanets passing in front of them.

In February 2011 the Kepler team announced they had found 54 planets thought to be suitable for life because they lie in their stars' habitable zones. Five of these planets are Earth-sized.

The telescope's discoveries also include the Kepler-11 solar system - six large exoplanets circling an eight billion year-old star, 2,000 light years from Earth.

Image: An illustration of Kepler (credit: NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

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An illustration of Kepler


A mission hunts for exoplanets similar to the Earth.

About Kepler Mission

Kepler is a space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. The spacecraft, named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, was launched on March 7, 2009.

Designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way to discover dozens of Earth-size extrasolar planets in or near the habitable zone and estimate how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets,Kepler '​s sole instrument is a photometer that continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view. These data are transmitted to Earth, then analyzed to detect periodic dimming caused by extrasolar planets that cross in front of their host star.

Kepler is part of NASA's Discovery Program of relatively low-cost, focused primary science missions. The telescope's construction and initial operation were managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with Ball Aerospace responsible for developing the Kepler flight system. The Ames Research Center is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations since December 2009, and scientific data analysis. The initial planned lifetime was 3.5 years, but greater-than-expected noise in the data, from both the stars and the spacecraft, meant additional time was needed to fulfill all mission goals. Initially, in 2012, the mission was expected to last until 2016, but this would only have been possible if all remaining reaction wheels used for pointing the spacecraft remained reliable. On May 11, 2013, a second of four reaction wheels failed, disabling the collection of science data and threatening the continuation of the mission.

As of January 2015[update], Kepler and its follow-up observations had found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in about 440 stellar systems, along with a further 3,199 unconfirmed planet candidates.[B] Four planets have been confirmed through Kepler '​s K2 mission. In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way. It is estimated that 11 billion of these planets may be orbiting Sun-like stars. The nearest such planet may be 3.7 parsecs (12 ly) away, according to the scientists.

On August 15, 2013, NASA announced that they had given up trying to fix the two failed reaction wheels. This meant the current mission needed to be modified, but it did not necessarily mean the end of planet-hunting. NASA had asked the space science community to propose alternative mission plans "potentially including an exoplanet search, using the remaining two good reaction wheels and thrusters". On November 18, 2013, the K2 "Second Light" proposal was reported. This would include utilizing the disabled Kepler in a way that could detect habitable planets around smaller, dimmer red dwarf stars. On May 16, 2014, NASA announced the approval of the K2 extension.

On January 6, 2015, NASA announced the 1000th confirmed exoplanet discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. Three of the newly confirmed exoplanets were found to orbit within habitable zones of their related stars: two of the three, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, are near-Earth-size and likely rocky; the third, Kepler-440b, is a super-Earth.

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