Kepler Maps New Worlds For Space Exploration

By  //  May 17, 2013

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surveying alien worlds

(VIDEO: nasaames)

BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – Straight out of the pages of a Star Trek television script, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft and observatory is surveying alien worlds capable of supporting life and mapping out new adventures for mankind to explore.

Kepler’s flight systems are reviewed prior to its launch in 2009. (Image courtesy Ball Aerospace)

Blasting off from Space Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in March 2009, Kepler’s mission is to locate and discover Earth-size planets in or near the Milky Way.

Because it is strictly an observatory, Kepler is equipped with a photometer that records the brightness of more than 145,000 stars in a fixed field of view.

Relaying the information it collects back to earth, astronomers and scientists analyze Kepler’s data and are able to discern periodic dimming of stars that is caused by planets crossing their orbit.

The Kepler spacecraft is named for Johannes Kepler, a 16th century German mathematician and astronomer who is credited as being the father of celestial physics.

The Kepler spacecraft and observatory is named for noted German astronomer Johannes Kepler. (Image courtesy NASA)

Stunning results

As a part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost scientific missions, Kepler has married technological advances with stunning and unexpected results.

In its short time in space, the Kepler observatory has found more than 2,300 planets. Some 207 of them are similar to in size to earth and many others correspond with sizes of the other plants in our own solar system.

Through December, Kepler has found 48 planet candidates in habitable zones of surveyed stars and Kepler astronomers have estimated that at least 5 percent of all stars host Earth-sized planet candidates, with 17 percent of all stars having multiple planets in their solar systems.

In January, an international team of astronomers reported that because of information collected by Kepler, it has been determined that each star in the Milky Way galaxy may host an average of 1.6 planets.

That suggests that the Milky Way alone may contain more than 160 billion stars with planets.

An artist’s concept of a disintegrating Mercury-size planet Kepler discovered with a comet-like tail in a distant galaxy. (Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Other discovery

The Kepler observatory also has recoded distant stellar super-flares, with some being 10,000 times more powerful than solar flares ever observed from our own sun.

Originally planned as a three-year exploration, Kepler’s resounding success led NASA in April to extend its mission and finding through 2016.

“Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets and the study of stellar seismology and variability,” said Roger Hunter, Kepler project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in California. “There is currently no other mission in development that can replace or surpass the precision of Kepler. This extended mission will afford Kepler a unique opportunity to rewrite our understanding of the galaxy and our place in it.”

Discoveries made by the Kepler observatory outside of our own solar system have included finding the first rocky planet, the first located multiple-transiting planet system, the first small planet in the habitable zone, the first earth-size planets, the smallest Mars-size planets and it confirmed an entirely  new class of double-star planetary systems.

In April, NASA extended the mission of the Kepler spacecraft and observatory to 2016. (Image courtesy NASA)

Telescope

Kepler uses a 0.95-meter diameter telescope with a field of view of about 10 degrees square and continually monitors stars brighter than 14th magnitude in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyrae.

The spacecraft’s solar array is rotated to face the Sun at the solstices and equinoxes to maximize the amount of sunlight falling on the solar array and keeping its heat radiator pointing toward deep space.

The Kepler project itself is managed by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Colorado in conjunction with the company that built Kepler — Ball Aerospace — from the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Science telemetry collected during mission operations is processed at the Kepler Data Management Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and analyzed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.


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