Kepler space telescope is not disappointing with its current mission. According to NASA’s latest data release, Kepler found 219 new candidate planets, including 10 that are potentially Earth-sized and within habitable zones. The new data will help scientists design future missions to find Earth-like, potentially life-sustaining planets.
Information on new possible planets was revealed in the final catalog for this specific view of the Cygnus constellation, located in the Milky Way. Based on public data from the NASA Exoplanet Archive, the catalog is the most comprehensive release on exoplanet candidates since Kepler launched in 2014.
What is Kepler?
Kepler is a rather uncomplicated observatory spacecraft used in the Kepler mission. This isn’t a Mars Rover with dozen plus different instruments available to collect data. After all, it’s floating in space, not exploring the surface of a planet. Instead, Kepler uses a photometer to point at a single star field and look for planets near the size of Earth. That’s it.
Now, if you’re imagining the telescope zooming in to take images of possible exoplanets, well, this isn’t like using your iPhone to take pictures of moon in a clear night sky. Kepler relies on the transit method, which means it looks for signs of planets in transit in front of their stars. For instance, it can’t see the planet, but when the planet moves in front of the star, Kepler basically sees the star’s light dim.
This seemingly simple observation allows scientists to figure out the orbital period of the planets orbiting the star. (Don’t think too hard on this one: for example, Earth’s orbital period is 365 days, which is how long it takes the planet to orbit our sun.) They can then deduce the diameter and the temperature using concepts that are way above my space nerd knowledge.
In other words, simple is better in this case because Kepler is focused on finding exoplanets. It leaves the other details to the likes of Hubble, and in the future, James Webb.
How are Kepler’s discoveries important?
One of the lingering questions most human beings have is “Are we alone?” To an individual this may reference the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, or this may be as simple as wondering if there’s any other life at all in the universe. The discovery of other planets, especially those we understand might have the conditions to support life, is the first step in answering the big question.
What has scientists most excited about Kepler’s findings is that they’ve noticed two distinct populations of planets in our galaxy that differ in features based on their size. Using data from these populations will allow them to understand the “demographics” of our galaxy and figure out how many Earth-like planets may be in it. From that point, they’ll can further narrow the design of future NASA missions to seek other possible life-supporting planets.
How many planets has Kepler found?
Scale is a problem for finding Earth-like planets. These latest discoveries bring the telescope’s total to 4,496 candidate planets. Of these, 2,337 are now verified planets, including 30 Earth-size habitable zone planets. Thirty out of the 2,337 verified is not a lot, only 1.3%.
For this and other reasons, the ability to narrow the focus of NASA missions through Kepler data, even just a tiny bit, is something the mission’s scientists see as vital to the search for another Earth. Plus, with the technologically advanced James Webb telescope set to launch in the near future, Kepler’s laying the groundwork for other, more technical NASA tools to use its data to discover more about the discovered habitable planets.
So, are we close to finding another Earth?
In the big picture? No.
Is it even likely we’ll find an Earth-like planet the supports life in my lifetime, through Kepler or other telescopes? Ehhh…doubtful.
But will I still get excited every time we lay more groundwork for future generations to do so? You bet!
Space is fascinating in a way that’s hard to comprehend as a little microscopic organism in the universe. For me, it will always be captivating, and that’s why I’ll be keeping up with whatever Kepler does next.
Find out more about Kepler, James Webb, and other NASA missions at nasa.gov.
Read NASA’s press release on Kepler’s discoveries.
Check out what makes the upcoming launch of James Webb awesome.