K2, the revamped mission, has yielded 104 confirmed exoplanets including the first planetary system comprising four Earth-like planets that could potentially support life.
Kepler spacecraft continues to turn up new kinds of worlds. A team of astronomers have confirmed a huge collection of more than 100 planets in a corner of sky including four potentially Earth-like planets.
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NASA’s Kepler mission is specifically designed to search for habitable planets orbiting other stars and to determine the fraction of hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets. Kepler has been incredibly successful in its mission as it has been able to find thousands of exoplanet candidates over its more than 7 year long mission so far and many of them has been verified as new planets. Precisely, more than 5,000 planet candidates have been found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler.
The mission was launched in 2009 which received an extension in 2012. Kepler’s original mission was focused on observing a small patch of sky in the northern hemisphere, finding the planets whose size and temperature are similar to Earth and which can support life on their surface. But scientists had to change the direction of the mission after spacecraft was being crippled by a mechanical malfunction.
Dubbed K2, the new missions was aimed to look at habitable planets around smaller, cooler red dwarf stars. The revamped mission has already found thousands of exoplanets including 1,284 in May 2016 which is the single largest finding of the planets to date.
"Kepler's original mission observed a small patch of sky as it was designed to conduct a demographic survey of the different types of planets," said lead researcher Ian Crossfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “This approach effectively meant that relatively few of the brightest, closest red dwarfs were included in Kepler's survey. The K2 mission allows us to increase the number of small, red stars by a factor of 20 for further study.”
The biggest achievement here probably is finding a system of four potentially rocky planets. These planets are between 20 percent and 50 percent larger than Earth and orbiting a star less than half the size of the sun. All these four worlds appear to be in the star's habitable zone that is just the right range of distances at which liquid water can exist on a world's surface, making them capable of supporting life. The observations were followed up and confirmed by Earth-based telescopes including the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea and the twin Gemini telescopes on Maunakea and in Chile.
K2 mission is going along nicely and astronomers are hoping to find many more alien worlds with the help of Kepler.
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“Our analysis shows that by the end of the K2 mission, we expect to double or triple the number of relatively small planets orbiting nearby, bright stars,” said Crossfield. “And because these planets orbit brighter stars, we'll be able to more easily study everything possible about them, whether it's measuring their masses with Doppler spectroscopy—already underway at Keck Observatory and APF—or measuring their atmospheric makeup with the James Webb Space Telescope in just a few years.”