Kepler has turned six! NASA’s space observatory tasked to find Earth-like planets orbiting other stars has been in space six years since it first launched on March 6, 2009, carried by the Delta II rocket.
The Kepler mission specifically specializes in the search for terrestrial planets half to twice the size of the Earth, particularly those that are in the habitable zone, meaning the possibility of the existence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. To find these planets, Kepler searches for the tiny dips in a star’s brightness when a planet crosses in front of it, or as scientists like to call it, when it transits the star.
Through this method, the spacecraft was able to discover more than four thousand candidate planets and confirmed planets, as well as 1,019 exoplanets and more than 3,100 candidates that are pending for validation through further inspection. Generally, there are approximately more than 1,200 transiting exoplanets and more than 1,800 exoplanets discovered by Kepler.
Beside the focal purpose of the mission, Kepler aids researchers in finding the numerous stars that hold Earth-size planets, as well as determining the properties of the said stars that bear planetary systems. Observations from the spacecraft hint that worlds similar to Earth are not quite as rare as was thought; there are roughly one in five stars that have an Earth-sized planet within its “habitable zone.”
After four years of carrying out its original purpose, Kepler ended its data collection after it lost the second of its spacecraft reaction wheels last May 2013. However, Kepler assets that remain intact can still be used for the current K2 mission, which will bring about new opportunities to study celestial bodies, such as star clusters, galaxies, and supernova, along with its continued observations in the field of exoplanets. In the duration of eighty-three days, K2 will be studying a particular location of the sky up until the point it is necessary to rotate the spacecraft in order to avoid the sunlight from entering the telescope.
K2 came to be fully functioning by June 2014, attaining the photometric precision close to that of the hardware of the original Kepler. Earlier this year, Kepler also discovered an ancient solar system, wherein planets revolve around a star that is believed to be more than twice the age of our Sun.