Science

Kepler's Kaput, But Exoplanet Discoveries Are Only Just Beginning

Kepler's Kaput, But Exoplanet Discoveries Are Only Just Beginning

NASA has chose to retire its Kepler space telescope that discovered more than 2,600 planets and ran out of fuel needed for further science operations.

NASA's retired principal investigator for the Kepler mission, Bill Borucki, described it as an "enormous success."We have shown that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy", Borucki said".

Kepler also surprised scientists four years into its mission after its primary objectives were met, by lasting much longer. "It was an extremely clever approach to doing this kind of science", said Leslie Livesay, director for astronomy and physics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who served as Kepler project manager during mission development.

"To "Kepler" we do not know how often or rare in our galaxy there are planets", - says the head of the NASA astrophysics division, Paul Hertz.

If you've read anything about newly discovered exoplanets over the past decade there's a really good chance the discovery was made by the Kepler space telescope.

Before Kepler was launched, theories existed about the number and types of planets that might be orbiting other stars, but there was little hard data.

However, a solution was found and in 2014 the "K2" element of the mission began, using solar pressure to help stabilize the pointing direction and observe new patches of the night sky.




"The Kepler mission has paved the way for future exoplanet studying missions". This light would allow astronomers to take the spectrum of a planet and look for signs of habitability - and life.

Kepler combined cutting-edge techniques in measuring stellar brightness with the largest digital camera outfitted for outer space observations at that time. But engineers discovered it was running low on fuel earlier this summer and extracted the last of the data before the telescope's mission ended. The end came just a few months shy of the 10th anniversary of Kepler's 2009 launch. "Many are still hiding in the data, ready to be discovered", said Susan Mullally, a scientist working on the Kepler mission at STScI.

Now that it has no fuel, the telescope can't correct its very specific orbit, so it is drifting farther and farther from our planet.

The $700 million mission even helped to uncover a year ago a solar system with eight planets, just like ours. The first data from TESS is already being sent to Earth and analyzed.

The far more advanced James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to lift off in 2021, should be able to reveal more about planets' mass, density and the makeup of their atmosphere - all clues to habitability. In a tweet yesterday from the Kepler Twitter account, the team said that it was "officially passing the planet-hunting torch" to TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which is expected to scan the skies to find significantly more planets in less time (and hopefully with less technical issues).

A successor to Kepler launched in April, NASA's Tess spacecraft, has its sights on stars closer to home.

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", said Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.