PORTLAND, Ore.—In a matter of months after its launch two years ago, the Kepler spacecraft had made more planet sightings than in the entire history of astronomy—1,235 and counting. So far, only 17 have been confirmed, but scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are confident that 80 percent will eventually be verified.
That's 988 planets spotted in just 1/400th of the sky by NASA's first mission dedicated to finding planets—almost twice as many as have been confirmed in the entire history of astronomy, 564.
Before Kepler, astronomers could only infer the presence of planets orbiting distant stars (called "extra-solar planets" or exoplanets for short), usually by measuring their gravitational influence on the motion of their parent suns. A few were also spotted because of their unique characteristics, such as being unimaginably large, or super-hot, or because they were located in an area that is easier to see, such as at the focal point of a gravitational lens. Most planets, however, are beyond the capabilities of any ground-based telescope, and even those observable from orbiting telescopes like the Hubble can only be seen a specific times of day and year—making a comprehensive search impossible.
This artist's conception depicts the Kepler-10 star system, located about 560 light-years away near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations.
Kepler was specifically designed to overcome all these problems, which it has done beautifully, despite the enforced austerity of its Discovery-class budget ($500 million). A few newer methods of detecting planets are being developed at NASA, such as a technique for blocking a star's light with a vector-vortex coronagraph and an analytical method that cancels out a stars glare using nulling interferometry, but for now the best way to detect exoplanets is Kepler.
"Kepler is the most exclusive photometer that has ever been built," said Jon Jenkins, an EE who is the Kepler Mission's co-investigator for data analysis at NASA. "We have been able to a pull out these very weak signals by creating a very low noise environment with a combination of software algorithms that we use both on-board and on the ground to process and analyze the data."
Thank you for the article and the specs - it is amazing that just this little spot in just this one little galaxy is producing so much - especially when this device with it's current algorithms - I am sure they will be improved - has a limited resolution, and will not see any planets like our own. I am not even sure it any of our planets would be seen although perhaps Saturn and Jupiter would (this would be nice to know). Regarding the uniqueness of Earth - I don't buy it as the one thing we have learned as we actually learn about the cosmos is how insignificant we are - can we really be alone?
It is just awesome to see continued success of NASA projects, if we could contemplate the odds of probabilities and the scale of space, distance, and time scales been are considered; for 2 civilizations to be aware of each other.
It is so remote that my head spins in just tinking of the possibilities...
Great research. I'm very interested in everything we can learn about our universe, even though I don't believe for a second that this will make any difference for finding other intelligent life. Most people don't seem to realize how unique our planet is. I highly doubt there is even 1 among those 988 planets that could support life if it was transplanted there. Let alone that it could develop by accident--a still completely unproven idea, and not for lack of trying.
While it is a disappointment that we are out of the manned space flight business for the moment, I can't fathom seeing our total space program as being anything but an incredible amount of scientific success.
It blows my mind to consider that we can detect planets at such staggering distances.
This is something mind boggling. Hats of to those engineers to first conceptualize such a instrument and building the same!
With persistent efforts like this we will sure find some response to our quest for the life elsewhere in this universe.
Very informative article with technical details and beautiful pictures. Good to see the success achieved by the scientists and the angineers in making new discoveries by means of technological advancements.
Again, US$500 million is a great amount of money! :)
A great news from NASA and SETI. Many planets in space and there will be life in many. THe scientists at NASA and SETI are doing it so finely. 21st centuary will identifi Alien family and make friends with them.