Tag Archives: Kepler

Kepler Space Telescope Discovers More Potentially Habitable Planets

Yesterday researchers from the NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope announced the discovery of 833 more candidate planets, 104 of which have the potential to harbor life. Included in that 104 in their respective Goldilocks Zones are 10 that are roughly the same size as Earth. As of this announcement, the total number of exoplanets discovered by Kepler since its launch in 2009 is now at 3,538. Its mission is to explore exoplanets and discover which ones are similar in size to Earth and are capable of supporting life. The announcement is coming from Kepler Science Conference, which is hosting over 400 scientists representing 30 countries.


According to William Borucki, the principal investigator for Kepler’s science mission, these discoveries “[open] a new era of exploration of our galaxy.” The first potentially habitable planet was announced two years ago, and since astronomers now believe there that most stars in the galaxy have at least one planet there is the possibility of many more potentially life-harboring discoveries to come.


This spring, Kepler’s mission was changed when two out of the four wheels used to point the telescope toward its targets broke, and NASA scientists were unable to repair them. Kepler completed its initial mission in 2012, and is currently completing an extended mission. Despite this, there is still a full year’s worth of data that has not been processed yet as Kepler monitored 150,000 stars and recorded data once every half hour for those four operational years. 


One analysis of Kepler’s data suggests that around 20% of sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet. So far, there have not been any reports of any such planet that completely mirrors Earth in terms of habitability and revolution length around a star like ours, but astronomers will continue to search. 

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/kepler-space-telescope-discovers-more-potentially-habitable-planets

Kepler Finds 100 New Exoplanets

Everyone can get a second chance, even broken space telescopes. Kepler, the planet hunting telescope, suffered a critical malfunction to its stabilizing system in May 2013. It seemedit was the end for the mission, but thanks to the clever men and women at mission control, they managed to reconfigure the probe and keep the search for exoplanets going.

Thissecond phase, called K2, discovered its first exoplanet at the end of 2014, and this week it was announced at the 227thAmerican Astronomical Society Meeting that 100 new exoplanets have now been discovered.

K2 campaigns run for about 80 days at atime, focusingon a particular patch of the sky, with five campaigns having run so far. “This is a validation of the whole K2 program’s ability to find large numbers of true, bona fide planets,” Ian Crossfield, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, said when presenting the results, as reported by Space.com.

Kepler has observed 60,000 stars and found 7,000 transit-like signals since it was restarted. The telescope uses the transit method to discover new planets. The spacecraft is sensitive enough to detect small dips in the brightness of stars and if the dips are repeated with regularity, that is an indication that a planet is orbiting that object.

This method requires extremely precise pointing; thus, the spacecraft had four stabilizing reaction wheels. Kepler only needed three to function so it was not a huge issue when one stopped functioning threeyears into the mission. When the second stopped working almost a year later, the situation seemed dire.

Luckily they were able to come up with a clever solution. Photons, particles of light, can apply a force to an object. This phenomenon, called radiation pressure, together with the other two stabilizers, was used to keep the telescope in position.

Kepler has been the most prolific planet-hunting mission to date, discovering over 1,000 exoplanets, and it looks like it will be able to see many more in the years to come.

[H/T: Space.com]

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/kepler-back-and-brings-100-new-exoplanets

Dancing Planets Reveal How Gas Giants Migrate Towards Stars

Exoplanet research has made huge progress lately, with more and more worlds outside the Solar System beingfound. And now, we aregetting closer to understanding how some of these planetary systems form.

In a study published in Nature, an international team of researchers has found conclusive evidence that giant planets migrate in young star systems. The system they studied, known as Kepler-223 and located 4,450 light-years, has a unique configuration, with fourplanets bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, so-called sub-Neptunes,orbiting very close to theirstar in seven to 19 days.

The four planets, which all have masses between three to nine times that of Earths, have orbital periods in the ratio of 3:4:6:8. The ratio is so precise that it creates an incredibly stable system, and the planets regularly align themselves in a cosmic ballet. Astronomers had seen extrasolar systems with two or three planets in resonance, but never four.

The team constructed a computer simulation to explain how this peculiar arrangement came to form, using Kepler 223 as a testing ground for the idea that gassy planets formfurther away from the star and then migrate inwardacross the protoplanetary disk.

“We think that two planets migrate through this disk, get stuck and then keep migrating together; find a third planet, get stuck, migrate together; find a fourth planet and get stuck,” lead author Sean Mills explained in a statement.

This animation illustrates the Kepler-223 planetary system. Each time the innermost planet (Kepler-223b) orbits the systems star three times, the second-closest planet (Kepler-223c) orbits precisely four times.W. Rebel

The Kepler observatory has discovered many star systems with multiple super-Earths and sub-Neptunes orbiting close to their host star, something we dont observe in our own Solar System. How these planets come to be in this position is a bit of a mystery though, with the migration theory being touted alongside others.

The researchers think that all these sorts of planets moved inwards due to the influence of resonance,and later became destabilized due to either larger planets or swarms of planetesimals, remnants from the initial formation material, crossing their orbits.

“Our work essentially tests a model for planet formation for a type of planet we don’t have in our Solar System,” added Mills. “That’s why there’s a big debate about how they form, how they got there, and why don’t we have one.”

While Kepler 223 doesnt look much like the Solar System, the teams believe that our Solar Systems giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were once moving around in a resonance configuration, and only interactions with the numerous smaller objects lead them to their present-day orbits.

The variety of the worlds and systems that have been showcased by Kepler observations indicates the complexity of planetary formation, but we are getting closer and closer to figuring out how it all fits together.

Photo Gallery

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/planet-resonance-highlights-gas-giants-inwards-migration

NASA Saves Kepler Spacecraft After Unknown Emergency Left It Stranded

NASAs planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has been saved from disaster after an unknown problem left it floating helplessly in space 120 million kilometers (75 million miles) from Earth.

At the end of last week, NASA announced that Kepler had gone into a fail-safe Emergency Mode (EM) due to an unknown problem with the space telescope, leaving engineers rushing to findthe source of the problem over the weekend.

“During a scheduled contact on Thursday, April 7, mission operations engineers discovered that the Kepler spacecraft was in Emergency Mode (EM),” NASA said in astatement. “EM is the lowest operational mode and is fuel intensive. Recovering from EM is the team’s priority at this time.”

But now the agency has announced that Kepler has recovered. Unfortunately,the cause of the problem is still not clear, so Kepler is not completely out of the woods yet. The spacecraft reached a stable state on Sunday morning and has since switched into a low fuel-burn mode. Scientists will investigate the spacecraft this week to try and work out what the problem was.

“The anomalous EM event is the first that the Kepler spacecraft has encountered during its seven years in space,” NASA said in its latest statement, adding that mission operations “remain vigilant”.

NASA first detected the problem towards the middle of last week, when scientists had been trying to point the spacecraft towards the middle of the Milky Way for a new round of observations.Owing to the serious nature of the issue, NASA allocated the Kepler team priority access to the Deep Space Network, the Earth-based communications network used to talk to spacecraft around the Solar System. Even using this, though, back-and-forth communication with the spacecraft took 13 minutes, owing to its distance from Earth.

Kepler 452b is the most Earth-like planet found by Kepler to date.NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler was initially launched in 2009 to find planets beyond the Solar System using the transit method observing the dip in distant stars as planets passed in front. Via this method,the spacecraft has found thousands of potential exoplanets, far more than every other planet-hunting telescope combined. Understandably, then,NASA is pretty keen to keep the successful mission going, at least until its successor the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launches in 2017.

This is not the first time Kepler has encountered a bit of a setback, though. In July 2012, one of the four gyroscopic reaction wheels used to orientate the spacecraft failed, meaning scientists had to devise an ingenious solution to use pressure from solar wind to act as a makeshift fourth wheel.

Thanks to these efforts, the spacecraft was able to resume operations as part of the K2 mission in 2014, continuing to find planets beyond the Solar System. Earlier this year, 100 new planets were reported as part of this secondary mission.

And now, Kepler’s groundbreaking mission can hopefully continue.

Photo Gallery

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/NASA-Kepler-spacecraft-emergency

Half Of Kepler’s Giant Exoplanets May Not Be Planets

A new study has indicated that more than half of the potential giant exoplanet candidates found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope are actually not exoplanets at all. According to the study, accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics, 52.3 percent were eclipsing binaries(two stars orbiting one another) and 2.3 percent were failed stars known as brown dwarfs (although the distinction between a brown dwarf and a giant planet is not entirely clear).

The team started by selecting a representative sample from all the 8,826 candidates from the Kepler object of interest list. The final selection was 129 largeobjects that block more than threepercent of the star’s lightthat could be detected multiple times as they orbit their star. The parent star has to be bright enough to be observed by SOPHIE, the spectrograph used for this particular analysis at the Haute-Provence Observatory in France.

“It was thought that the reliability of the Kepler exoplanets detection was very good between 10 and 20 percentof them were not planets,” lead author Alexandre Santerne from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences said in astatement.”Our extensive spectroscopic survey, of the largest exoplanets discovered by Kepler, shows that this percentage is much higher, even above 50 percent. This has strong implications in our understanding of the exoplanet population in the Kepler field.”

Potential exoplanet discoveries are often followed by detailed spectroscopic observations thatallow astronomers to confirm if the object is a planet or not, as well as providing estimates for the mass. A smaller star orbiting a large staror brown dwarfs can mimic a giant transiting exoplanet, so a spectroscopic survey like this one is very important in confirming the true nature of exoplanet candidates.

“After 20 years of exploring planets as big as Jupiter around other suns, we still have a lot of questions left open,”Santerne added.”For instance, we don’t understand what is the physical mechanism that forms Jupiter-like planets with orbital periods as little as a few days. It is like if our annual rotation around the Sun would last only a few daysimagine your age! We also don’t understand why some of these giant planets are so puffy.”

By using the size information from Kepler and the mass from SOPHIE, the team was able to calculate the bulk density of the confirmed exoplanets, and it turns out that not all giant planets are aspuffy as astronomers thought they were. More data is necessary to understand these hot Jupiters and to precisely describe themin planetary formation and evolution theories.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/more-half-kepler-s-candidates-are-not-exoplanets

Scientists Can Tell How Old A Star Is Based On How Fast It’s Spinning

Unlike humans, stars don’t have to put any effort into concealing their age—they are notoriously, and frustratingly, good at it. But we do share one thing in common: Stars slow down as they get older, a feature that scientists have been taking advantage of for some years now. However, with a limited data set, scientists have struggled to make reliable calculations.

Now, thanks to Kepler observations, scientists have finally demonstrated that they can accurately determine the age of sun-like stars from how fast they are spinning. Their work, which has been presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, represents a giant leap towards the ultimate goal of building a clock that can precisely measure the ages of stars from their spins.

Learning the age of a star is crucial for many astronomical studies, in particular for the search of planets outside our solar system (exoplanets), and of course extraterrestrial life. Given that stars and planets form together, if we know the age of a star, we can determine the age of its planets. And the older the planet, the greater the possibility of finding life as it has had more time to get started.

Scientists are particularly interested in stars like our own, or “cool stars.” These are the most abundant stars in our galaxy and are also very bright. These galactic lamp posts also host the majority of Earth-like planets spotted so far. Unfortunately, these stars are tricky to age because their size and brightness don’t change much throughout most of their lives. But scientists have identified something that does change as a star grows old: its rotation, which gradually gets slower.

According to the new work, there is a close relationship between a star’s mass, spin and age, and if the first two can be measured, the third can be calculated. To measure a star’s spin, scientists look at dark patches, called star spots, which travel across the surface as it rotates. When astronomers look at distant stars, they can’t directly see these spots, so instead they look for dips in brightness that occur when the spot appears.

Typically, these spots only dim a star’s brightness by less than 1%, meaning the changes are very difficult to measure. This is where NASA’s Kepler spacecraft came to the rescue, which has provided precise measurements of stellar brightness since 2009.

In order to calibrate their stellar clock, scientists needed to measure the spin periods of stars with known ages and masses. Prior to this study, this had only been achieved for stars within a 1-billion-year-old cluster NGC 6811, which rotated about once every 10 days, and of course for our own 4.6 billion year old sun, which had a spin period of 26 days. Now, scientists have added to this data set by measuring the spin of 30 sun-like stars in a cluster known to be 2.5 billion years old, closing a “four-billion-year-gap.” As described in Nature, the stars in this cluster, NGC 6819, sat beautifully in this gap, rotating around every 18 days.

Prior to this work, the ages of cool stars came with a margin of error as large as 100%; now, this has been reduced to around 10%.

[Via Harvard CfA, Nature and BBC News]

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/scientists-age-stars-based-their-spin

Kepler Team Announces Discovery of Earth-Sized Planet in Habitable Zone

Since its launch in the spring of 2009, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has been hunting exoplanets. The holy grail being a planet that is essentially like ours in terms of size, composition, and habitability: an Earth-twin. While we still haven’t found a planet that exactly fits that bill, Kepler has now confirmed the discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet in its star’s habitable zone. The announcement was made at a press conference and the findings have been published in Science.

Kepler-186f is about 10% larger than Earth and orbits an M dwarf star around 500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. The star is about half of the size and mass of our sun, and it takes Kepler-186f about 130 Earth days to complete a revolution. On the outer edge of the star’s habitable zone, the planet receives about a third of the radiation from its parent star as we do from ours. 

Life as we know it requires the presence of liquid water, so a planet with the potential for life would be not too close to the star (which would be too hot and the water would be vapor) yet not too far away (where it would be too cold and the water would be ice). Habitability requires a “Goldilocks Zone” where conditions are just right.

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, lead author of the paper. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

Co-author Thomas Barclay added: “Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has. Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

Determining the composition of planets out in the habitable zone isn’t as easy as those who are incredibly close to the star, because there isn’t as much radiation from the parent star available to determine what is or isn’t getting absorbed. While previous findings have indicated that Kepler-186f is a rocky planet, further analysis must be done before any definitive conclusions can be made.

Have questions for the scientists? Ask them using #Kepler186f on Twitter, Facebook, or G+

Correction 4/17/2014 1:30 pm PDT: An earlier version of this article stated the planet was 40% larger than Earth. That was a typo; Kepler-186f  is 10% larger than Earth. Apologies for any confusion that error may have caused

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/kepler-team-announces-discovery-earth-sized-planet-habitable-zone

Ranking Exoplanets By Their Ability To Support Life

To date, 1,780 planets have been confirmed to exist beyond our solar system. But how many of these hold the potential to support life? National Geographic have compiled the planets discovered so far into a graph, organizing them by mass and temperature, which are two important limiting factors for the potential to support life. The temperature has to be within a range that can maintain any water present in a liquid state, and the mass needs to be within a range that supports a suitable atmosphere.

Of those 1,780 planets, 16 may have the right conditions to support life. Considering how incredibly vast the universe is it’s certainly likely that many more planets will be discovered over time, but this is a pretty encouraging starting figure. The newly discovered Kepler-186f, the first confirmed Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the habitable zone, was included in the list. 

Check out the image below to see the graphic. An interactive version is available on the National Geographic webpage

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/ranking-exoplanets-their-ability-support-life

Alien Planet Haul: Telescope Spots 41 New Exoplanets


Astronomers have discovered 41 new alien planets in one sweep by analyzing how each world gravitationally yanks on its neighbors.

The newly confirmed exoplanets were spotted by NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope, which has detected more than 2,300 potential alien worlds since its March 2009 launch. The new finds, announced in two separate papers, bring the number of verified Kepler worlds to 115 and the total exoplanet tally to nearly 800.

“Typically planets are announced one or two at a time — it’s quite exceptional to have 27 announced in a single paper, or 41 in two,” said Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill. Steffen is lead author of one of the studies.

“It goes to show how rich the Kepler data are and how useful these new methods can be,” Steffen told SPACE.com.


Kepler flags exoplanet candidates via the transit method, which looks for dips in a star’s brightness caused by a planet crossing in front of it. Confirming these candidates can be a tricky and laborious process, however, requiring follow-up observations by ground-based instruments or further analysis of Kepler’s data.

Two independent teams of researchers took the latter tack to confirm the 41 new alien planets. They delved deep into the telescope’s observations, studying how each world’s gravity tugs on its sibling planets. These slight pulls cause regular variations in the planets’ orbits, affecting when they cross in front of their stars.

One paper, by Jiwei Xie at the University of Toronto, confirms 24 new planets in 12 systems. Another study, by Steffen and his colleagues, confirms 27 planets in 13 systems. Five of the systems, and 10 of the planets, are the same in both papers. All in all, the new research adds 20 new planetary systems to the 47 that Kepler had previously confirmed, marking a more than 40% increase.

“With systems like these, we can get really good information about the interactions among the planets in them,” Steffen said. “This, in turn, helps us place the Earth and our solar system into the context of all planetary systems. Note that the number of planets in our solar system is now only 1% of the number of planets that are known. So, unlike 15 or 20 years ago, we can start to answer questions about how lucky we really are.”

Steffen and his colleagues submitted their paper to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, while Xie submitted his study to the Astrophysical Journal.

The $600 milllion Kepler observatory’s main mission is to find Earth-size planets in the so-called habitable zones of their parent stars — a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it.

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/21/kepler-telescope-new-exoplanets/