Despite Broken Telescope, Kepler Mission Still Finding Planets
Team announces a new batch of suspected exoplanets
At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, scientists announced a new tally of exoplanets discovered by the Kepler telescope. In 2014, the telescope spotted more than 100 new planets and 234 suspected planets in other star systems. Not too shabby, for a broken telescope.
For years, Kepler focused intently on one part of the night sky, watching for faraway planets to pass in front of their host stars. It discovered more than 1,000 new planets that way, and 4700 suspected planets.
Unfortunately, by 2013, 2 of the 4 wheels that aimed the telescope at that patch of sky failed, sending Kepler careening. Many thought it might spell the end of the planet-finding telescope, but NASA came up with a backup plan.
Under the “K2” mission, Kepler stares at a single patch of sky for 83 days until the scope needs to be pointed away from the sun. Then it stares at a different patch of the sky for another 83 days before it needs to be turned again. (There’s an infographic here that explains how it works.) It’s not ideal, since who knows how many planetary transits we’re missing while Kepler’s back is turned, but it’s better than nothing.
Now, over at Gizmodo, Maddie Stone reports that scientists have found 234 exoplanet candidates in K2’s 2014 data, up from about a hundred K2 candidates before now.
The exoplanets haven’t been confirmed yet–scientists will have to followup with additional investigations, but most are expected to turn out to be real planets. And perhaps one or a few of these could turn out to be friendly to life.