NASA’s Kepler space telescope hit a major milestone on Tuesday, January 6. It was announced at the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle that Kepler has now identified more than 1,000 exoplanets and more than 4,000 planet candidates.
Kepler began its planet-hunting mission in 2009. And, although that initial mission ended in mid-2013 after two of spacecraft’s four reaction wheels failed, eliminating the ability of the telescope to maintain positioning, scientists are still combing through the significant pile of data collected by Kepler.
Scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics analyzing Kepler’s data recently discovered eight potentially habitable alien planets. The Telegraph explains that “The new worlds double the number of small exo-planets believed to be circling their stars in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ – neither too hot, nor too cold, where water would not evaporate or freeze.” Dr. Guillermo Torresthe, the study’s lead scientist, explains, “Most of these planets have a good chance of being rocky, like Earth.”
The Telegraph points out that, of these eight planets that could potentially sustain life as we know it, the two most like Earth, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, “orbit red dwarf stars that are smaller and cooler than the Sun.”
Study co-author, Dr. David Kipping, cautiously explains, “We don’t know for sure whether any of the planets in our sample are truly habitable. All we can say is that they’re promising candidates.”
The team’s research about these planets will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.
The premature end of Kepler’s primary mission was an unfortunate blow to the hunt for alien worlds. But, fortunately, the spacecraft has successfully been repurposed. As Space.com explains, “In May 2014, NASA approved a new two-year mission extension called K2 for the space observatory, during which a compromised Kepler continues to hunt for exoplanets but also observes other cosmic objects and phenomena, including supernova explosions and star clusters.”