The Kepler Space Telescope ended its wildly successful planet-hunting mission last year, but it’s still making discoveries from the grave. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has since taken up the planet-hunter banner, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s on the same level as Kepler. The gap between the probes just got wider, too. A new analysis of data from Kepler has revealed hundreds of potential new exoplanets.
Kepler launched in 2009 on a three and a half year mission to find distant worlds. NASA is used to missions operating long past their expected lifespan, but Kepler started experiencing issues in 2012. The spacecraft used the transit method of detecting exoplanets — it watched stars for telltale dips in brightness as planets passed in front of them. That meant Kepler had to remain pointed at the same region for long periods of time, but two of its four reaction wheels failed by mid-2013.
NASA was able to restore Kepler to partial functionality in 2014 by stabilizing it with photons reflecting off its solar panels. This “K2” mission yielded more data and exoplanets, but much of that data is “messy” and hard to interpret. Enter, Ethan Kruse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Kruse and his team devised a new method of processing the K2 data using Quasiperiodic Automated Transit Search (QATS) and EPIC Variability Extraction and Removal for Exoplanet Science Targets (EVEREST). The processing helps reduce the noisy arcs and curves in the K2 data. The result is many, many new exoplanet signals.
NASA’s K2 balancing act gave the spacecraft a new lease on life after two unexpected reaction wheel failures.
This is not the first analysis of K2 data, so not all of the 818 planets detected in the study are new. However, an impressive 374 of the signals have not been detected previously. Of those, 154 are what’s known as reciprocally transiting planets. That means they transit their stars from our perspective on Earth, and Earth does the same from those planets. So, there could be alien astronomers running a similar experiment wondering if Earth supports life. The data points to worlds of various sizes from super-Earths to gas giants, and there are 87 multi-planet systems.
Currently, all the objects listed in the new analysis are mere “candidate” exoplanets. Another team will have to go and check each signal to confirm. In the future, astronomers may be able to use the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope to take a closer look at some of these planetary systems. For now, most of the verification will take place at large ground-based observatories.
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