NASA claims to have found 219 more potential exoplanets (planets orbiting other solar systems) adding to its growing list of similar findings ever since it launched the Kepler space observatory in 2009.
Ten of these exoplanets are rocky like Earth and similar in size, and more importantly, they are in, what is referred to as, the “Habitable Zone” – the ideal distance from their stars/suns to support life of any kind – not too close to be too hot to support water formation, neither too far for water to be in a permanent freeze.
The latest findings were released on Monday at the ‘Kepler & K2 Science Conference IV’ being held this week at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
— NASA (@NASA) June 20, 2017
The Kepler mission has so far been able to track 4034 exoplanets, 2335 of them being verified discoveries. With the inclusion of the 10 new rocky, Earth-like planets there are now 50 such planets that exist in habitable zones in their respective solar systems.
“With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth-size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified,” said a NASA statement on www.nasa.gov.
Kepler research scientist and lead author of the latest study, Susan Thompson, said that “this carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions — how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?”
“The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogues – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth,” explained Mario Perez, a Kepler program scientist at NASA.
“Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future Nasa missions to directly image another Earth.”
The mission had its fair share of glitches to contend with during the survey, running into technical problems in 2013 when the turning mechanism of the observatory failed. However, that did not deter the mission team from continuing the search for potentially habitable exoplanets.
The next phase will see Kepler replaced by its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), in NASA’s quest to identify more and more exoplanets in the galaxy. TESS will, reportedly, spend two years observing the “200,000 brightest nearby stars for Earth-like worlds.”
The Kepler Space Observatory
Named after the astronomer, Johannes Kepler, the Kepler space observatory has been in an “Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit” since March 7, 2009, when it was launched by NASA as part of its program to discover Earth-size exoplanets.
The spacecraft was designed to scan an area of the galaxy in the vicinity of our own solar system to identify Earth-like exoplanets in and around the ‘habitable zones’ of their own planetary systems.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed the construction and initial operation of the telescope while Kepler’s flight system was developed by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation. Kepler missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate fall under the jurisdiction of the Ames Research Center.
Equipped with a photometer that continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view, Kepler beams the collected data back to Earth for analysis. The method involves detecting the periodic dimming which happens when exoplanets cross in front of their host star – similar to the Eclipse concept.
Due to noise interference in the data from the stars as well as the spacecraft, the mission was supposed to be extended till 2016 in order to achieve all mission targets.
However, built to endure the harsh space conditions for a maximum of 3.5 years, Kepler ran into trouble on July 14, 2012, when one of the four reaction wheels of the craft stopped turning.
Incident-free functioning of the three remaining reaction wheels was now critical to the completion of the mission but fate would have it differently. On May 11, 2013, the continuation of the mission was seriously jeopardized when a second reaction wheel stopped working.
NASA failed in its attempt to fix the two out of commission reaction wheels, publicly throwing in the towel on August 15, 2013, with an announcement to the effect. NASA then appealed to the space science community for alternative plans for continuing the search for exoplanets using the two working reaction wheels and thrusters.
The K2 “Second Light” proposal came in on November 18, 2013, and got NASA’s official nod on May 16, 2014. It involved using the limited capabilities of the handicapped Kepler to track habitable planets around smaller, and dimmer red dwarfs.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
Here we are today with a NASA headline that says:
NASA Releases Kepler Survey Catalog with Hundreds of New Planet Candidates