“Space the final frontier…” Although we have not been able to reach into deep space since the last Apollo mission in 1972 that does not mean that NASA has not been looking for new ways to explore our universe. To me, the most exciting NASA initiative today is their Kepler Mission.
What is the Kepler Mission?
Kepler is a space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth like planets. The spacecraft was launched in 2009 and is now starting the reward NASA with many exciting discoveries.
NASA’s Kepler mission announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system. Growing up on Star Trek announcements like this are very exciting indeed!
Nearly 95 percent of these newly discovered planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than had been previously identified outside our solar system.
“The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.
“The research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability. Kepler observes 150,000 stars, and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.
Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s habitable zone. This is important because this zone is defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water. From what we currently know about life this condition is required for life to exist.
One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.
This latest discovery brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to nearly 1,700. As we continue to reach toward the stars, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy.
Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. Discoveries include more than 3,600 planet candidates, of which 961 have been verified as bona-fide worlds.
If all this sounds like a science fiction bonanza it is not. I often wonder as do so many others what the worldwide reaction will be when life, outside of our small blue planet is finally discovered. Many hope it will bring our world together as truly one people.
It all does sound like Star Trek – doesn’t it?