The Kepler Mission has left a gold mine of data for astronomers to analyze for years to come to find additional planets. Kepler switched into “safe mode” in May, after a gyroscope used to aim the telescope broke. At the time, its hunt for potentially habitable worlds, the mission was closing in on the answer. To date. Kepler had discovered 3,548 possible planets to date, and 135 of them — some smaller than the Earth — have been validated by other observations, including the first Earth-sized worlds found outside our solar system, profoundly altering our sense of place in the universe.
Kepler’s enduring legacy will be its contributions to our knowledge about how common planets of various sizes are in other solar systems in the Milky Way. The telescope’s rich data base has spurred a new field of astroseismology, in which researchers study the internal structure of stars and their rotation and oscillation.“At the beginning of our mission, no one knew if Earth-size planets were abundant in the galaxy. If they were rare, we might be alone,” William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a statement. “The data holds the answer to the question that inspired the mission: Are Earths in the habitable zone of stars like our Sun common or rare?”
“We had some really interesting experiments to do on the extended mission. Certainly, they would have been worth doing. But we can hardly complain given that we filled the baseline mission and we have a terrific dataset to work on,” said David Latham, a co-investigator for Kepler at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where about two dozen astronomers analyze the data from the mission. Latham said he is already preparing for the next planet-hunting mission, called TESS. That mission is expected to launch in early 2018.
NASA scientists are holding out hope that some other scientific use can be made of the spacecraft, calling on the scientific community to send ideas about how it can be repurposed. But the telescope will be best known for the way it has profoundly altered our sense of place in the universe.
The Daily Galaxy via NASA/Kepler Mission and New York Times
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