Kepler Is Still Alive and Kicking, Finds 234 Exoplanets in the Last Year

December 5, 2015

Kepler space telescope is living a second life in the form of K2 mission. In the last year, it has found 234 new exoplanet candidates.

Artist's impression of Kepler space telescope. Credit: NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel

After its second of four reaction wheels failed in May 2013, it seemed that exoplanet-searching Kepler space telescope was doomed, but it was reborn and the new mission called “K2” has resulted in new 234 exoplanet candidates in the last year. Originally, the telescope needed at least three out of four stabilising reaction wheels in order to make precise observations of distant stars.

In this new era, Kepler is stabilised by photons of light that exert pressure on the telescope. The photons come from the Sun of course, but Kepler’s dependency on Sun also means it has to “look away” from the star to avoid getting sunlight in its field of view. It has to do this for longer periods of time, as explained in infographic below.

Image credit: NASA

The discovery of these new 234 exoplanet candidates is the topic of a study led by Andrew Vanderburg at the Harvard University, Cambridge, USA. Their paper is accepted in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“The main reason we wrote this paper is that there are way too many planets for us to look at by ourselves,” said Vanderburg. “We need help from other astronomers to learn all we can about these exciting new planets. So we hope that our paper serves as an invitation to others to start taking a look.”

Since the changes Kepler had to undergo, it is not able to observe as many stars as before, since it has to focus on brighter stars, but that also means it is easier to confirm if the candidates are indeed real.

“It turns out that the new method is working almost exactly as well for bright stars as Kepler worked before its malfunction,” Vanderburg added. “This is not something anyone expected back in 2013 after the mechanical failure. Even the most optimistic estimates of K2′s performance were not that hopeful.”



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