Kepler Phase 2: Planet-Hunting Space Telescope’s New Mission Proposal Approved

Illustration of how the new K2 mission will work, using solar pressure to help stabilize the telescope. Image Credit: NASA Ames / W. Stenzel
Illustration of how the new K2 mission will work, using solar pressure to help stabilize the telescope. Image Credit: NASA Ames / W. Stenzel

There is some good news for planet-hunters this week: The proposed K2 mission extension for the Kepler Space Telescope has been been approved by NASA. The approval, based on a recommendation from the agency’s 2014 Senior Review, means that the Kepler mission will have at least two more years to continue its search for exoplanets, after having already found thousands of planetary candidates and nearly a thousand confirmed planets to date.

As Kepler deputy project manager Charlie Sobeck mentioned on the Kepler website, “Good news from NASA HQ. The two-wheel operation mode of the Kepler spacecraft … has been approved.”

The K2 mission was proposed after the second of Kepler’s guidance control reaction wheels failed last year, meaning that the telescope was no longer stable enough to focus properly on its target stars. With K2, Kepler uses the Sun’s own radiation pressure to help stabilize its pointing capabilities, in effect making up for the lost reaction wheel. It’s a clever fix to a problem that seemingly would end the telescope’s mission for good.

Diagram showing the Kepler spacecraft and three major axes of orientation. Image Credit: NASA
Diagram showing the Kepler spacecraft and its three major axes of orientation. Image Credit: NASA

As well as continuing its prime objective of searching for more exoplanets, Kepler will now also be able to other possible targets including star clusters, young and old stars, galaxies, supernovae, pulsational variable stars, rotationally variable stars, flaring stars, accreting stars and interacting binaries, binary stars, stellar associations, active galactic nuclei, and microlenses.

The first science observation run of the new mission is scheduled to begin May 30, 2014. Each science observation will last about 75 days.

Kepler has already revolutionized our understanding of planets orbiting distant stars. Along with other space- and ground-based telescopes, we now know of thousands of planets in our galaxy alone, and because these searches have still only observed a relatively small number of stars, the extrapolated number of other planets in just our galaxy is thought to be in the millions, perhaps even billions by some estimates.

Since being launched in 2009, Kepler alone has so far found 966 confirmed exoplanets and another 3,845 candidates. And that is in just one very small patch of the entire sky.

The majority of those planets also appear to be smaller worlds, such as the “super-Earths” (significantly larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus or Neptune) and smaller rocky planets like oursa hopeful sign in the search for life elsewhere.

More information about the K2 mission is available here and the 2014 Senior Review report is available here.

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