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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:NASA's Kepler to find Earth-size planets
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Robert Pearlman
At the Hazardous Processing Facility at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla., workers position the Kepler spacecraft onto a Delta II third stage.

Kepler is designed to survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy to determine the number of sun-like stars that have Earth-size and larger planets, including those that lie in a star's "habitable zone," a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist. If these Earth-size worlds do exist around stars like our sun, Kepler is expected to be the first to find them and the first to measure how common they are.

The liftoff of Kepler aboard a Delta II rocket is currently targeted for 10:48 p.m. EST March 5 from Space Launch Complex 17 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Telescope to Launch Aboard Delta II Rocket

Launch of NASA's Kepler telescope is targeted for no earlier than Friday, March 6, from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. There are two launch windows, from 10:49 - 10:52 p.m. and 11:13 - 11:16 p.m. EST.

Kepler is a spaceborne telescope designed to search the nearby region of our galaxy for Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zone of stars like our sun. The habitable zone is the region around a star where temperatures permit water to be liquid on a planet's surface.

Liquid water is considered essential for the existence of life as we know it. The vast majority of the approximately 300 planets known to orbit other stars are much larger than Earth, and none is believed to be habitable. The challenge for Kepler is to look at a large number of stars in order to statistically estimate the total number of Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars in the habitable zone. Kepler will survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy.

Engineers are reviewing all common hardware between the Delta II rocket carrying the Kepler telescope and the Taurus XL launch vehicle. On Tuesday, a Taurus carrying NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to reach orbit. Managers want to confirm there will not be similar issues with Kepler's Delta II.

Kepler's original March 5 target launch date was moved one day later to accommodate the additional time for analysis. The March 6 target date still must be confirmed by the U.S Air Force, which manages the eastern launch range. Kepler's Flight Readiness Review is on Monday, March 2.

NASA's Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., is responsible for the launch of Kepler aboard a Delta II 7925-10L rocket. United Launch Alliance is conducting the launch for NASA. NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., is the home organization of the principal science investigator and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is responsible for the spacecraft and the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation of Boulder, Colo., is responsible for developing and building the Kepler spacecraft and supporting mission operations.

NASA Television Coverage

NASA Television coverage of the Kepler prelaunch press conference and of the launch will be carried on the NASA TV Public Channel (Channel 101).

NASA Television coverage of the Kepler prelaunch news conference and mission science briefing at Kennedy will begin at 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 5.

NASA Web Prelaunch and Launch Coverage

Kepler's prelaunch webcast, featuring Kepler's Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. David Koch and Kennedy Mission Manager Armando Piloto, will be streamed on the Web and broadcast on NASA TV on Thursday, March 5, at 11:30 a.m.

Live countdown coverage through NASA's launch blog begins at 9 p.m. Friday, March 6. Coverage features real-time updates as countdown milestones occur as well as streaming video clips highlighting launch preparations and liftoff.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Set For Launch

NASA's Kepler mission to seek other Earth-like planets is undergoing final preparations for liftoff Friday, March 6, from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft launch aboard a Delta II rocket has two windows of opportunity Friday, from 10:49 to 10:52 p.m. and 11:13 to 11:16 p.m. EST.

Kepler is designed to find the first Earth-size planets orbiting stars in habitable zones -- regions where water could pool on the surface of the planets. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life.

"This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself -- are other planets like ours out there?" said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It's not just a science question -- it's a basic human question."

After the clock ticks down to liftoff, the Delta II's first-stage main engine and six strap-on solid rocket boosters will ignite. Three remaining boosters will ignite 65.5 seconds later, and the first-stage main engine will continue to burn for 4.5 minutes. The second stage will then ignite, carrying Kepler into a circular orbit 115 miles above Earth less than 10 minutes after launch. After coasting for 43 minutes, the second-stage engine will fire again, followed by second-stage shutdown and separation. The third stage will then burn for five minutes.

Sixty-two minutes after launch Kepler will have separated entirely from its rocket and will be in its final Earth-trailing orbit around the sun, an orbit similar to that of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. "We are very excited to see this magnificent spacecraft come to life when it reaches space," said James Fanson, Kepler project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

After a commissioning period lasting about two months, Kepler will begin its job of staring at more than 100,000 stars for three-and-one-half years, looking for planets. Its isolated perch behind Earth will give the telescope an unobstructed view of a single, very large patch of sky near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations.

"We will monitor a wide range of stars; from small cool ones, where planets must circle closely to stay warm, to stars bigger and hotter than the sun, where planets must stay well clear to avoid being roasted," said William Borucki, science principal investigator for the mission at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Borucki has been working on the mission for 17 years. "Everything about the mission is optimized to find Earth-size planets with the potential for life, to help us answer the question -- are Earths bountiful or is our planet unique?"

Kepler will find planets by looking for periodic dips in starlight. Planets that happen to pass directly in front of their stars from Earth's point of view cause the stars to dim by almost imperceptible amounts. Kepler's powerful camera, the largest ever flown in space, can see the faintest of these "winks."

"Trying to detect Jupiter-size planets crossing in front of their stars is like trying to measure the effect of a mosquito flying by a car's headlight," said Fanson. "Finding Earth-sized planets is like trying to detect a very tiny flea in that same headlight."

If the mission does find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of stars, it should find them first around stars that are smaller than our sun. This is because the habitable zone is closer for small stars; planets circling in this region would take less time to complete one lap and, theoretically, less time for Kepler to find them and for other ground-telescopes to confirm their existence. Any Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zones of stars like our sun -- the true Earth analogs -- would take at least three years to be confirmed.

Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is the home organization of the science principal investigator and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations. NASA's Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., manages the launch service including payload integration and certifying the Delta II launch vehicle for NASA's use.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Rockets to Space in Search of Other Earths

NASA's Kepler mission successfully launched into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II at 10:49 p.m. EST, Friday. Kepler is designed to find the first Earth-size planets orbiting stars at distances where water could pool on the planet's surface. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life.

"It was a stunning launch," said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our team is thrilled to be a part of something so meaningful to the human race -- Kepler will help us understand if our Earth is unique or if others like it are out there."

Engineers acquired a signal from Kepler at 12:11 a.m. Saturday, after it separated from its spent third-stage rocket and entered its final sun-centered orbit, trailing 950 miles behind Earth. The spacecraft is generating its own power from its solar panels.

"Kepler now has the perfect place to watch more than 100,000 stars for signs of planets," said William Borucki, the mission's science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Borucki has worked on the mission for 17 years. "Everyone is very excited as our dream becomes a reality. We are on the verge of learning if other Earths are ubiquitous in the galaxy."

Engineers have begun to check Kepler to ensure it is working properly, a process called "commissioning" that will take about 60 days. In about a month or less, NASA will send up commands for Kepler to eject its dust cover and make its first measurements. After another month of calibrating Kepler's single instrument, a wide-field charge-couple device camera, the telescope will begin to search for planets.

The first planets to roll out on the Kepler "assembly line" are expected to be the portly "hot Jupiters" -- gas giants that circle close and fast around their stars. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes will be able to follow up with these planets and learn more about their atmospheres. Neptune-size planets will most likely be found next, followed by rocky ones as small as Earth. The true Earth analogs -- Earth-sized planets orbiting stars like our sun at distances where surface water, and possibly life, could exist -- would take at least three years to discover and confirm. Ground-based telescopes also will contribute to the mission by verifying some of the finds.

In the end, Kepler will give us our first look at the frequency of Earth-size planets in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as the frequency of Earth-size planets that could theoretically be habitable.

"Even if we find no planets like Earth, that by itself would be profound. It would indicate that we are probably alone in the galaxy," said Borucki.

As the mission progresses, Kepler will drift farther and farther behind Earth in its orbit around the sun. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched into the same orbit more than five years ago, is now more than 62 million miles behind Earth.

Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is the home organization of the science principal investigator and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations. NASA's Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., managed the launch service including payload integration and certifying the Delta II launch vehicle for NASA's use.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Dust Cover Jettisoned From NASA's Kepler Telescope

Engineers have successfully ejected the dust cover from NASA's Kepler telescope, a spaceborne mission soon to begin searching for worlds like Earth.

"The cover released and flew away exactly as we designed it to do," said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This is a critical step toward answering a question that has come down to us across 100 generations of human history -- are there other planets like Earth, or are we alone in the galaxy?"

Kepler, which launched on March 6 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., will spend three-and-a-half years staring at more than 100,000 stars in our Milky Way galaxy for signs of Earth-size planets. Some of the planets are expected to orbit in a star's "habitable zone," a warm region where water could pool on the surface. The mission's science instrument, called a photometer, contains the largest camera ever flown in space -- its 42 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) will detect slight dips in starlight, which occur when planets passing in front of their stars partially block the light from Kepler's view.

The telescope's oval-shaped dust cover, measuring 1.7 meters by 1.3 meters (67 inches by 52 inches), protected the photometer from contamination before and after launch. The dust cover also blocked stray light from entering the telescope during launch -- light that could have damaged its sensitive detectors. In addition, the cover was important for calibrating the photometer. Images taken in the dark helped characterize noise coming from the instrument's electronics, and this noise will later be removed from the actual science data.

"Now the photometer can see the stars and will soon start the task of detecting the planets," said Kepler's Science Principal Investigator William Borucki at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "We have thoroughly measured the background noise so that our photometer can detect minute changes in a star's brightness caused by planets."

At 7:13 p.m. PDT on April 7, engineers at Kepler's mission operations center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, Colo., sent commands to pass an electrical current through a "burn wire" to break the wire and release a latch holding the cover closed. The spring-loaded cover swung open on a fly-away hinge, before drifting away from the spacecraft. The cover is now in its own orbit around the sun, similar to Kepler's sun-centric orbit. See an animation of the event.

With the cover off, starlight is entering the photometer and being imaged onto its focal plane. Engineers will continue calibrating the instrument using images of stars for another several weeks, after which science observations will begin.

Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. NASA's Ames Research Center Ames is the home organization of the science principal investigator, and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Captures First Views of Planet-Hunting Territory

NASA's Kepler mission has taken its first images of the star-rich sky where it will soon begin hunting for planets like Earth.

The new "first light" images show the mission's target patch of sky, a vast starry field in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. One image shows millions of stars in Kepler's full field of view, while two others zoom in on portions of the larger region.

"Kepler's first glimpse of the sky is awe-inspiring," said Lia LaPiana, Kepler's program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "To be able to see millions of stars in a single snapshot is simply breathtaking."

One new image from Kepler shows its entire field of view -- a 100-square-degree portion of the sky, equivalent to two side-by-side dips of the Big Dipper. The regions contain an estimated 14 millions stars, more than 100,000 of which were selected as ideal candidates for planet hunting.

Two other views focus on just one-thousandth of the full field of view. In one image, a cluster of stars located about 13,000 light-years from Earth, called NGC 6791, can be seen in the lower left corner. The other image zooms in on a region containing a star, called Tres-2, with a known Jupiter-like planet orbiting every 2.5 days.

"It's thrilling to see this treasure trove of stars," said William Borucki, science principal investigator for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "We expect to find hundreds of planets circling those stars, and for the first time, we can look for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones around other stars like the sun."

Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years searching more than 100,000 pre-selected stars for signs of planets. It is expected to find a variety of worlds, from large, gaseous ones, to rocky ones as small as Earth. The mission is the first with the ability to find planets like ours -- small, rocky planets orbiting sun-like stars in the habitable zone, where temperatures are right for possible lakes and oceans of water.

To find the planets, Kepler will stare at one large expanse of sky for the duration of its lifetime, looking for periodic dips in starlight that occur as planets circle in front of their stars and partially block the light. Its 95-megapixel camera, the largest ever launched into space, can detect tiny changes in a star's brightness of only 20 parts per million. Images from the camera are intentionally blurred to minimize the number of bright stars that saturate the detectors. While some of the slightly saturated stars are candidates for planet searches, heavily saturated stars are not.

"Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-size planets," said James Fanson, Kepler's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our images are road maps that will allow us, in a few years, to point to a star and say a world like ours is there."

Scientists and engineers will spend the next few weeks calibrating Kepler's science instrument, the photometer, and adjusting the telescope's alignment to achieve the best focus. Once these steps are complete, the planet hunt will begin.

"We've spent years designing this mission, so actually being able to see through its eyes is tremendously exciting," said Eric Bachtell, the lead Kepler systems engineer at Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Bachtell has been working on the design, development and testing of Kepler for nine years.

Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations.

PhilipNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Spies Changing Phases in a Distant World

NASA's new exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope has detected the atmosphere of a known giant gas planet, demonstrating the telescope's extraordinary scientific capabilities. The discovery will be published Friday in the journal Science.

The find is based on a relatively short 10 days of test data collected before the official start of science operations. Kepler was launched March 6, 2009, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The observation demonstrates the extremely high precision of the measurements made by the telescope, even before its calibration and data analysis software were finished.

"As NASA's first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene," said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate's Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Detecting this planet's atmosphere in just the first 10 days of data is only a taste of things to come. The planet hunt is on!"

Kepler team members say these new data indicate the mission is indeed capable of finding Earth-like planets, if they exist. Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm zone where there could be water. It will do this by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars, which occur when orbiting planets transit, or cross in front of, the stars.

"When the light curves from tens of thousands of stars were shown to the Kepler science team, everyone was awed; no one had ever seen such exquisitely detailed measurements of the light variations of so many different types of stars," said William Borucki, the principal science investigator and lead author of the paper.

The observations were collected from a planet called HAT-P-7, known to transit a star located about 1,000 light years from Earth. The planet orbits the star in just 2.2 days and is 26 times closer than Earth is to the sun. Its orbit, combined with a mass somewhat larger than the planet Jupiter, classifies this planet as a "hot Jupiter." It is so close to its star, the planet is as hot as the glowing red heating element on a stove.

The Kepler measurements show the transit from the previously detected HAT-P-7. However, these new measurements are so precise, they also show a smooth rise and fall of the light between transits caused by the changing phases of the planet, similar to those of our moon. This is a combination of both the light emitted from the planet and the light reflected off the planet. The smooth rise and fall of light is also punctuated by a small drop in light, called an occultation, exactly halfway between each transit. An occultation happens when a planet passes behind a star.

The new Kepler data can be used to study this hot Jupiter in unprecedented detail. The depth of the occultation and the shape and amplitude of the light curve show the planet has an atmosphere with a day-side temperature of about 4,310 degrees Fahrenheit. Little of this heat is carried to the cool night side. The occultation time compared to the main transit time shows the planet has a circular orbit. The discovery of light from this planet confirms the predictions by researchers and theoretical models that the emission would be detectable by Kepler.

This new discovery also demonstrates Kepler has the precision to find Earth-size planets. The observed brightness variation is just one and a half times what is expected for a transit caused by an Earth-sized planet. Although this is already the highest precision ever obtained for an observation of this star, Kepler will be even more precise after analysis software being developed for the mission is completed.

"This early result shows the Kepler detection system is performing right on the mark," said David Koch, deputy principal investigator of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "It bodes well for Kepler's prospects to be able to detect Earth-size planets."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope Discovers Five Exoplanets

NASA's Kepler space telescope, designed to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars, has discovered its first five new exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system.

Kepler's high sensitivity to both small and large planets enabled the discovery of the exoplanets, named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b. The discoveries were announced Monday, Jan. 4, by the members of the Kepler science team during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington.

"These observations contribute to our understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve from the gas and dust disks that give rise to both the stars and their planets," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Borucki is the mission's science principal investigator. "The discoveries also show that our science instrument is working well. Indications are that Kepler will meet all its science goals."

Known as "hot Jupiters" because of their high masses and extreme temperatures, the new exoplanets range in size from similar to Neptune to larger than Jupiter. They have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of the planets range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it. All five of the exoplanets orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

"It's gratifying to see the first Kepler discoveries rolling off the assembly line," said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog."

Launched on March 6, 2009, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Kepler mission continuously and simultaneously observes more than 150,000 stars. Kepler's science instrument, or photometer, already has measured hundreds of possible planet signatures that are being analyzed.

While many of these signatures are likely to be something other than a planet, such as small stars orbiting larger stars, ground-based observatories have confirmed the existence of the five exoplanets. The discoveries are based on approximately six weeks' worth of data collected since science operations began on May 12, 2009.

Kepler looks for the signatures of planets by measuring dips in the brightness of stars. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars as seen from Earth, they periodically block the starlight. The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

Kepler will continue science operations until at least November 2012. It will search for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

According to Borucki, Kepler's continuous and long-duration search should greatly improve scientists' ability to determine the distributions of planet size and orbital period in the future. "Today's discoveries are a significant contribution to that goal," Borucki said. "The Kepler observations will tell us whether there are many stars with planets that could harbor life, or whether we might be alone in our galaxy."

Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system. Ball and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder are supporting mission operations.

Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted with ground-based telescopes the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona; and Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Robert PearlmanNASA Ames Research Center release
Kepler Science Status: Statement to Ames Center Director

The following NASA statement was sent to Dr. S. Pete Worden, Director, NASA Ames Research Center from the Kepler Science Council on Aug. 2, 2010.

"Recently there have been reports to the effect that Kepler has discovered many Earth-like planets. This is not the case. Analysis of the current Kepler data does not support the assertion that Kepler has found any Earth-like planets.

Kepler is producing excellent results and is on a path to achieving all its mission requirements and actually determining the frequency of Earth-size planets, especially in habitable zones. We will announce our results when they become available and are confirmed."

Signed,

Edward W. Dunham, Kepler Science Team Lead
Thomas N. Gautier, Kepler Project Scientist
William J. Borucki, Kepler Principal Investigator

for the Kepler Science Council

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Discovers Two Planets Transiting the Same Star

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star.

The transit signatures of two distinct planets were seen in the data for the sun-like star designated Kepler-9. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c. The discovery incorporates seven months of observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. The findings will be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

Kepler's ultra-precise camera measures tiny decreases in the stars' brightness that occur when a planet transits them. The size of the planet can be derived from these temporary dips.

The distance of the planet from the star can be calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star. Small variations in the regularity of these dips can be used to determine the masses of planets and detect other non-transiting planets in the system.

In June, mission scientists submitted findings for peer review that identified more than 700 planet candidates in the first 43 days of Kepler data. The data included five additional candidate systems that appear to exhibit more than one transiting planet. The Kepler team recently identified a sixth target exhibiting multiple transits and accumulated enough follow-up data to confirm this multi-planet system.

"Kepler's high quality data and round-the-clock coverage of transiting objects enable a whole host of unique measurements to be made of the parent stars and their planetary systems," said Doug Hudgins, the Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists refined the estimates of the masses of the planets using observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The observations show Kepler-9b is the larger of the two planets, and both have masses similar to but less than Saturn. Kepler-9b lies closest to the star with an orbit of about 19 days, while Kepler-9c has an orbit of about 38 days. By observing several transits by each planet over the seven months of data, the time between successive transits could be analyzed.

"This discovery is the first clear detection of significant changes in the intervals from one planetary transit to the next, what we call transit timing variations," said Matthew Holman, a Kepler mission scientist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "This is evidence of the gravitational interaction between the two planets as seen by the Kepler spacecraft."

In addition to the two confirmed giant planets, Kepler scientists also have identified what appears to be a third, much smaller transit signature in the observations of Kepler-9. That signature is consistent with the transits of a super-Earth-sized planet about 1.5 times the radius of Earth in a scorching, near-sun 1.6 day-orbit. Additional observations are required to determine whether this signal is indeed a planet or an astronomical phenomenon that mimics the appearance of a transit.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Takes Pulse Of Distant Stars

An international cadre of scientists that used data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft announced Tuesday the detection of stellar oscillations, or "starquakes," that yield new insights about the size, age and evolution of stars.

The results were presented at a news conference at Aarhus University in Denmark by scientists representing the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium (KASC). The team studied thousands of stars observed by Kepler, releasing what amounts to a roster of some of humanity's most well-characterized stars.

Analysis of stellar oscillations is similar to how seismologists study earthquakes to probe the Earth's interior. This branch of science, called astroseismology, produces measurements of stars the Kepler science team is anxious to have.

"Using the unparalleled data provided by Kepler, KASC scientists are quite literally revolutionizing our understanding of stars and their structures," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "What's more, they are doing so at no cost to the American taxpayer. All the KASC scientists are supported by research funding from their home countries. It is a perfect illustration of the tremendous value that our international partners bring to NASA missions."

In the results presented Tuesday, one oscillating star took center stage: KIC 11026764 has the most accurately known properties of any star in the Kepler field. In fact, few stars in the universe are known to similar accuracy. At an age of 5.94 billion years, it has grown to a little over twice the diameter of the sun and will continue to do so as it transforms into a red giant. The oscillations reveal that this star is powered by hydrogen fusion in a thin shell around a helium-rich core.

"We are just about to enter a new area in stellar astrophysics," said Thomas Kallinger, lead author on a study of red giant stars and postdoctoral fellow at the Universities of British Columbia and Vienna. "Kepler provides us with data of such good quality that they will change our view of how stars work in detail."

KASC scientists also reported on the star RR Lyrae. It has been studied for more than 100 years as the first member of an important class of stars used to measure cosmological distances. The brightness, or light wave amplitude, of the star oscillates within a well-known period of about 13.5 hours. Yet during that period, other small cyclic changes in amplitude occur -- behavior known as the Blazhko effect.

The effect has puzzled astronomers for decades, but thanks to Kepler data, scientists may have a clue as to its origin. Kepler observations revealed an additional oscillation period that had never been previously detected. The oscillation occurs with a time scale twice as long as the 13.5-hour period. The Kepler data indicates the doubling is linked to the Blazhko effect.

"Kepler data ultimately will give us a better understanding of the future of our sun and the evolution of our galaxy as a whole," said Daniel Huber, lead author on one of the KASC studies.

Launched in March 2009, Kepler was designed to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars. The spacecraft uses a huge digital camera, known as a photometer, to continuously monitor the brightness of more than 150,000 stars in its field of view as it orbits around the sun. Kepler searches for distant worlds by looking for "transits," when a planet passes in front of a star, briefly causing it to dim. The amount of dimming reveals the size of the planet compared to the size of the star.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA'S Kepler Mission Discovers Its First Rocky Planet

NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010.


"All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal. "The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off."

Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star.

Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone, the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the planet's surface. However, since it orbits once every 0.84 days, Kepler-10b is more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun and not in the habitable zone.

Kepler-10 was the first star identified that could potentially harbor a small transiting planet, placing it at the top of the list for ground-based observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory 10-meter telescope in Hawaii.

Scientists waiting for a signal to confirm Kepler-10b as a planet were not disappointed. Keck was able to measure tiny changes in the star's spectrum, called Doppler shifts, caused by the telltale tug exerted by the orbiting planet on the star.

"The discovery of Kepler 10-b is a significant milestone in the search for planets similar to our own," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Although this planet is not in the habitable zone, the exciting find showcases the kinds of discoveries made possible by the mission and the promise of many more to come," he said.

Knowledge of the planet is only as good as the knowledge of the star it orbits. Because Kepler-10 is one of the brighter stars being targeted by Kepler, scientists were able to detect high frequency variations in the star's brightness generated by stellar oscillations, or starquakes. This analysis allowed scientists to pin down Kepler-10b's properties.

There is a clear signal in the data arising from light waves that travel within the interior of the star. Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium scientists use the information to better understand the star, just as earthquakes are used to learn about Earth's interior structure. As a result of this analysis, Kepler-10 is one of the most well characterized planet-hosting stars in the universe.

That's good news for the team studying Kepler-10b. Accurate stellar properties yield accurate planet properties. In the case of Kepler-10b, the picture that emerges is of a rocky planet with a mass 4.6 times that of Earth and with an average density of 8.8 grams per cubic centimeter -- similar to that of an iron dumbbell.

Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Finds Earth-Size Planet Candidates In Habitable Zone, Six Planet System

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our sun.

Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system.


"In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today's reality," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA's science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos."

The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter.

Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter.

The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009, of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler's field of view, which covers approximately 1/400 of the sky.

"The fact that we've found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the mission's science principal investigator. "We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water."

Among the stars with planetary candidates, 170 show evidence of multiple planetary candidates. Kepler-11, located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth, is the most tightly packed planetary system yet discovered. All six of its confirmed planets have orbits smaller than Venus, and five of the six have orbits smaller than Mercury's. The only other star with more than one confirmed transiting planet is Kepler-9, which has three. The Kepler-11 findings will be published in the Feb. 3 issue of the journal Nature.

"Kepler-11 is a remarkable system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at Ames. "These six planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume. By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we determined they are among the lowest mass confirmed planets beyond our solar system."

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11 are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outward, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is half as far from its star as Earth is from the sun.

The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which indicates that they formed within a few million years of the system's formation.

"The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them. This is known as a transit.

Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take three years to locate and verify Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest the spacecraft finds.

The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Discovery Confirms First Planet Orbiting Two Stars

The existence of a world with a double sunset, as portrayed in the film Star Wars more than 30 years ago, is now scientific fact. NASA's Kepler mission has made the first unambiguous detection of a circumbinary planet — a planet orbiting two stars — 200 light-years from Earth.

Unlike Star Wars' Tatooine, the planet is cold, gaseous and not thought to harbor life, but its discovery demonstrates the diversity of planets in our galaxy. Previous research has hinted at the existence of circumbinary planets, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Kepler detected such a planet, known as Kepler-16b, by observing transits, where the brightness of a parent star dims from the planet crossing in front of it.

"This discovery confirms a new class of planetary systems that could harbor life," Kepler principal investigator William Borucki said. "Given that most stars in our galaxy are part of a binary system, this means the opportunities for life are much broader than if planets form only around single stars. This milestone discovery confirms a theory that scientists have had for decades but could not prove until now."

A research team led by Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., used data from the Kepler space telescope, which measures dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, to search for transiting planets. Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the "habitable zone," the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of the orbiting planet.

Scientists detected the new planet in the Kepler-16 system, a pair of orbiting stars that eclipse each other from our vantage point on Earth. When the smaller star partially blocks the larger star, a primary eclipse occurs, and a secondary eclipse occurs when the smaller star is occulted, or completely blocked, by the larger star.

Astronomers further observed that the brightness of the system dipped even when the stars were not eclipsing one another, hinting at a third body. The additional dimming in brightness events, called the tertiary and quaternary eclipses, reappeared at irregular intervals of time, indicating the stars were in different positions in their orbit each time the third body passed. This showed the third body was circling, not just one, but both stars, in a wide circumbinary orbit.

The gravitational tug on the stars, measured by changes in their eclipse times, was a good indicator of the mass of the third body. Only a very slight gravitational pull was detected, one that only could be caused by a small mass. The findings are described in a new study published Friday, Sept. 16, in the journal Science.

"Most of what we know about the sizes of stars comes from such eclipsing binary systems, and most of what we know about the size of planets comes from transits," said Doyle, who also is the lead author and a Kepler participating scientist. "Kepler-16 combines the best of both worlds, with stellar eclipses and planetary transits in one system."

This discovery confirms that Kepler-16b is an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas. The parent stars are smaller than our sun. One is 69 percent the mass of the sun and the other only 20 percent. Kepler-16b orbits around both stars every 229 days, similar to Venus' 225-day orbit, but lies outside the system's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface, because the stars are cooler than our sun.

"Working in film, we often are tasked with creating something never before seen," said visual effects supervisor John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm Ltd., in San Francisco. "However, more often than not, scientific discoveries prove to be more spectacular than anything we dare imagine. There is no doubt these discoveries influence and inspire storytellers. Their very existence serves as cause to dream bigger and open our minds to new possibilities beyond what we think we 'know.'"

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-Like Star

NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the "habitable zone," the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don't yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

Previous research hinted at the existence of near-Earth-size planets in habitable zones, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Two other small planets orbiting stars smaller and cooler than our sun recently were confirmed on the very edges of the habitable zone, with orbits more closely resembling those of Venus and Mars.

"This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth's twin," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Kepler's results continue to demonstrate the importance of NASA's science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe."

Kepler discovers planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets that cross in front, or "transit," the stars. Kepler requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

"Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., who led the team that discovered Kepler-22b. "The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season."

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Kepler-22b is located 600 light-years away. While the planet is larger than Earth, its orbit of 290 days around a sun-like star resembles that of our world. The planet's host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

Of the 54 habitable zone planet candidates reported in February 2011, Kepler-22b is the first to be confirmed. This milestone will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Kepler team is hosting its inaugural science conference at Ames Dec. 5-9, announcing 1,094 new planet candidate discoveries. Since the last catalog was released in February, the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler has increased by 89 percent and now totals 2,326. Of these, 207 are approximately Earth-size, 680 are super Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter.

The findings, based on observations conducted May 2009 to September 2010, show a dramatic increase in the numbers of smaller-size planet candidates.

Kepler observed many large planets in small orbits early in its mission, which were reflected in the February data release. Having had more time to observe three transits of planets with longer orbital periods, the new data suggest that planets one to four times the size of Earth may be abundant in the galaxy.

The number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates has increased by more than 200 and 140 percent since February, respectively.

There are 48 planet candidates in their star's habitable zone. While this is a decrease from the 54 reported in February, the Kepler team has applied a stricter definition of what constitutes a habitable zone in the new catalog, to account for the warming effect of atmospheres, which would move the zone away from the star, out to longer orbital periods.

"The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we're honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead at San Jose State University in California. "The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Discovers First Earth-Size Planets Beyond Our Solar System

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, would melt glass.

“The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone," said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. "This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”

The Kepler-20 system includes three other planets that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Kepler-20b, the closest planet, Kepler-20c, the third planet, and Kepler-20d, the fifth planet, orbit their star every 3.7, 10.9 and 77.6 days. All five planets have orbits lying roughly within Mercury's orbit in our solar system. The host star belongs to the same G-type class as our sun, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

The system has an unexpected arrangement. In our solar system, small, rocky worlds orbit close to the sun and large, gaseous worlds orbit farther out. In comparison, the planets of Kepler-20 are organized in alternating size: large, small, large, small and large.

"The Kepler data are showing us some planetary systems have arrangements of planets very different from that seen in our solar system," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "The analysis of Kepler data continue to reveal new insights about the diversity of planets and planetary systems within our galaxy."

Scientists are not certain how the system evolved but they do not think the planets formed in their existing locations. They theorize the planets formed farther from their star and then migrated inward, likely through interactions with the disk of material from which they originated. This allowed the worlds to maintain their regular spacing despite alternating sizes.

The Kepler space telescope detects planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets crossing in front, or transiting, their stars. The Kepler science team requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds. The star field Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can be seen only from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

To validate Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, astronomers used a computer program called Blender, which runs simulations to help rule out other astrophysical phenomena masquerading as a planet.

On Dec. 5 the team announced the discovery of Kepler-22b in the habitable zone of its parent star. It is likely to be too large to have a rocky surface. While Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are Earth-size, they are too close to their parent star to have liquid water on the surface.

"In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University. "We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler's most anticipated discoveries are still to come."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets

Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth, but orbit close to their star. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars -- called exoplanets -- only a handful are known to be rocky.

"Astronomers are just beginning to confirm thousands of planet candidates uncovered by Kepler so far," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Finding one as small as Mars is amazing, and hints that there may be a bounty of rocky planets all around us."

Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by crossing, or transiting, planets. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a planet. Follow-up observations from ground-based telescopes also are needed to confirm the discoveries.

The latest discovery comes from a team led by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The team used data publicly released by the Kepler mission, along with follow-up observations from the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their measurements dramatically revised the sizes of the planets from what originally was estimated.

The three planets are very close to their star, taking less than two days to orbit around it. The KOI-961 star is a red dwarf with a diameter one-sixth that of our sun, making it just 70 percent bigger than Jupiter.

"This is the tiniest solar system found so far," said John Johnson, the principal investigator of the research from NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It's actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy."

Red dwarfs are the most common kind of star in our Milky Way galaxy. The discovery of three rocky planets around one red dwarf suggests that the galaxy could be teeming with similar rocky planets.

"These types of systems could be ubiquitous in the universe," said Phil Muirhead, lead author of the new study from Caltech. "This is a really exciting time for planet hunters."

The discovery follows a string of recent milestones for the Kepler mission. In December 2011, scientists announced the mission's first confirmed planet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star: a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth called Kepler-22b. Later in the month, the team announced the discovery of the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f.

For the latest discovery, the team obtained the sizes of the three planets called KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03 with the help of a well-studied twin star to KOI-961, or Barnard's Star. By better understanding the KOI-961 star, they then could determine how big the planets must be to have caused the observed dips in starlight. In addition to the Kepler observations and ground-based telescope measurements, the team used modeling techniques to confirm the planet discoveries.

Prior to these confirmed planets, only six other planets had been confirmed using the Kepler public data.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Awarded Mission Extension

NASA's Kepler mission has been approved for extension through fiscal year 2016 based on a recommendation from the agency's senior review of its operating missions. The extension provides four additional years to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone — the region in a planetary system where liquid water could exist on the surface of an orbiting planet — around sun-like stars in our galaxy.

"Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets and the study of stellar seismology and variability," said Roger Hunter, Kepler project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "There is currently no other mission in development that can replace or surpass the precision of Kepler. This extended mission will afford Kepler a unique opportunity to rewrite our understanding of the galaxy and our place in it."

Launched in March 2009, the Kepler spacecraft identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the tiny change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars to detect when a planet transits the face of the star. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a planet.

"Kepler offers a new technical capability, opening a new measurement parameter space, and as often happens with such developments, that has led to unexpected results... There has been a continuous stream of new findings — the assimilation and exploitation of new opportunities is just beginning," as stated by the committee in the 2012 Senior Review report.

The mission's discoveries beyond our solar system include the first unquestionably rocky planet; the first multiple-transiting planet system; the first small planet in the habitable zone; the first Earth-size planets; the smallest Mars-size planets; and the confirmation of a new class of double-star planetary systems.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Completes Prime Mission, Begins Extended Mission

NASA is marking two milestones in the search for planets like Earth; the successful completion of the Kepler Space Telescope's 3 1/2- year prime mission and the beginning of an extended mission that could last as long as four years.

Scientists have used Kepler data to identify more than 2,300 planet candidates and confirm more than 100 planets. Kepler is teaching us the galaxy is teeming with planetary systems and planets are prolific, and giving us hints that nature makes small planets efficiently.

So far, hundreds of Earth-size planet candidates have been found as well as candidates that orbit in the habitable zone, the region in a planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet. None of the candidates is exactly like Earth. With the completion of the prime mission, Kepler now has collected enough data to begin finding true sun-Earth analogs -- Earth-size planets with a one-year orbit around stars similar to the sun.

"The initial discoveries of the Kepler mission indicate at least a third of the stars have planets and the number of planets in our galaxy must number in the billions," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "The planets of greatest interest are other Earths and these could already be in the data awaiting analysis. Kepler's most exciting results are yet to come."

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope searches for planet candidates orbiting distant suns, or exoplanets, by continuously measuring the brightness of more than 150,000 stars. When a planet candidate passes, or transits, in front of the star from the spacecraft's vantage point, light from the star is blocked. Different sized planets block different amounts of starlight. The amount of starlight blocked by a planet reveals its size relative to its star.

Kepler was launched March 6, 2009. Its mission was to survey a portion of the galaxy to determine what fraction of stars might harbor potentially habitable, Earth-sized planets. Planets orbiting in or near habitable zones are of particular interest.

Kepler began the search for small worlds like our own on May 12, 2009, after two months of commissioning. Within months, five exoplanets, known as hot Jupiters because of their enormous size and orbits close to their stars, were confirmed.

Results from Kepler data continue to expand our understanding of planets and planetary systems. Highlights from the prime mission include:

  • In August 2010, scientists confirmed the discovery of the first planetary system with more than one planet transiting the same star. The Kepler-9 system opened the door to measurement of gravitational interactions between planets as observed by the variations in their transit timing. This powerful new technique enables astronomers, in many cases, to calculate the mass of planets directly from Kepler data, without the need for follow-up observations from the ground.

  • In January 2011, the Kepler team announced the discovery of the first unquestionably rocky planet outside the solar system. Kepler-10b, measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, is the smallest confirmed planet with both a radius and mass measurement. Kepler has continued to uncover smaller and smaller planets, some almost as small as Mars, which tells us small rocky worlds may be common in the galaxy.

  • In February 2011, scientists announced Kepler had found a very crowded and compact planetary system – a star with multiple transiting planets. Kepler-11 has six planets larger than Earth, all orbiting closer to their star than Venus orbits our sun. This and other subsequently identified compact multi-planet systems have orbital spacing relative to their host sun and neighboring planets unlike anything envisioned prior to the mission.

  • In September 2011, Kepler data confirmed the existence of a world with a double sunset like the one famously portrayed in the film "Star Wars" more than 35 years ago. The discovery of Kepler-16b turned science fiction into science fact. Since then, the discoveries of six additional worlds orbiting double stars further demonstrated planets can form and persist in the environs of a double-star system.

  • In December 2011, NASA announced Kepler's discovery of the mission's first planet in a habitable zone. Kepler-22b, about 2.4 times the size of Earth, is the smallest-radius planet yet found to orbit a sun-like star in the habitable zone. This discovery confirmed that we are getting continually closer to finding planets like our own.

  • In February 2012, the Kepler team announced more than 1,000 new transiting planet candidates for a cumulative total of 2,321. The data continues the trend toward identifying smaller planets at longer orbital periods, similar to Earth. The results include hundreds of planetary systems.

  • Recently, citizen scientists participating in Planet Hunters, a program led by Yale University that enlists the public to comb through Kepler data for signs of transiting planets, made their first planet discovery. The joint effort of amateur astronomers and scientists led to the first reported case of a planet orbiting a double star. The three bodies in turn are being orbited by a second distant pair of stars.
"Kepler's bounty of new planet discoveries, many quite different from anything found previously, will continue to astound," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at Ames. "But to me, the most wonderful discovery of the mission has not been individual planets, but the systems of two, three, even six planets crowded close to their stars, and, like the planets orbiting about our sun, moving in nearly the same plane. Like people, planets interact with their neighbors and can be greatly affected by them. What are the neighborhoods of Earth-size exoplanets like? This is the question I most hope Kepler will answer in the years to come."

In April 2012, NASA awarded Kepler an extended mission through as late as 2016. More time will enable the continued the search for worlds like our own -- worlds that are not too far and too close to their sun.

"The Earth isn't unique, nor the center of the universe," said Geoff Marcy, professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley. "The diversity of other worlds is greater than depicted in all the science fiction novels and movies. Aristotle would be proud of us for answering some of the most profound philosophical questions about our place in the universe."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Kepler Mission Manager Update

At our semi-weekly contact on Tuesday, May 14, 2013, we found the Kepler spacecraft once again in safe mode. As was the case earlier this month, this was a Thruster-Controlled Safe Mode. The root cause is not yet known, however the proximate cause appears to be an attitude error. The spacecraft was oriented with the solar panels facing the sun, slowly spinning about the sun-line. The communication link comes and goes as the spacecraft spins.

We attempted to return to reaction wheel control as the spacecraft rotated into communication, and commanded a stop rotation. Initially, it appeared that all three wheels responded and that rotation had been successfully stopped, but reaction wheel 4 remained at full torque while the spin rate dropped to zero. This is a clear indication that there has been an internal failure within the reaction wheel, likely a structural failure of the wheel bearing. The spacecraft was then transitioned back to Thruster-Controlled Safe Mode.

An Anomaly Review Board concurred that the data appear to unambiguously indicate a wheel 4 failure, and that the team’s priority is to complete preparations to enter Point Rest State. Point Rest State is a loosely-pointed, thruster-controlled state that minimizes fuels usage while providing a continuous X-band communication downlink. The software to execute that state was loaded to the spacecraft last week, and last night the team completed the upload of the parameters the software will use.

The spacecraft is stable and safe, if still burning fuel. Our fuel budget is sufficient that we can take due caution while we finish our planning. In its current mode, our fuel will last for several months. Point Rest State would extend that period to years.

We have requested and received additional NASA Deep Space Network communication coverage, and this morning the Anomaly Review Board approved the transition to Point Rest State later today. Because this is a new operating mode of the spacecraft, the team will closely monitor the spacecraft, but no other immediate actions are planned. We will take the next several days and weeks to assess our options and develop new command products. These options are likely to include steps to attempt to recover wheel functionality and to investigate the utility of a hybrid mode, using both wheels and thrusters.

With the failure of a second reaction wheel, it's unlikely that the spacecraft will be able to return to the high pointing accuracy that enables its high-precision photometry. However, no decision has been made to end data collection.

Kepler had successfully completed its primary three-and-a-half year mission and entered an extended mission phase in November 2012.

Even if data collection were to end, the mission has substantial quantities of data on the ground yet to be fully analyzed, and the string of scientific discoveries is expected to continue for years to come.

Updates will be provided as information is available.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Kepler Mission Manager Update

Following the apparent failure of reaction wheel 4 on May 11, 2013, engineers were successful at transitioning the spacecraft from a Thruster-Controlled Safe Mode to Point Rest State at approximately 3:30 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. The spacecraft has remained safe and stable in this attitude and is no longer considered to be in a critical situation.

As part of a normal spacecraft response to a pointing error, redundant electronics were automatically powered off to isolate them as a possible cause. However, once the team recovered the spacecraft to Point Rest State (PRS) and exonerated those systems, they were turned back on, providing full redundancy to the spacecraft. The reaction wheels remain offline. The photometer, which was turned off to reduce the power load, will be turned back on in the near future to keep thermal conditions of the spacecraft within nominal operating parameters. Kepler is not in science data collection.

PRS was developed in order to preserve fuel for an eventual recovery effort once a second wheel failed. This state uses thrusters to control the pointing of the spacecraft, tipping it towards the sun and letting the solar pressure tip it back away, resembling the motion of a pendulum. This is a very fuel-efficient mode, and it also provides an on-demand telemetry link to allow engineers to monitor and command the spacecraft. With nearly a week of PRS operations, the fuel usage appears to be on the low end of our estimates, allowing time for recovery planning.

The operations staff at Ball Aerospace did a wonderful job at developing and implementing PRS. As a result, the spacecraft is not in an emergency condition, and work can be conducted at a more deliberate pace. For the next week or so, we will contact the spacecraft on a daily basis to ensure PRS continues to operate as expected.

Over the coming weeks, an anomaly response team (ART) will evaluate wheel recovery options. The ART includes members from NASA Ames, Ball Aerospace, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UTC, the wheel manufacturer. This team has access to a broader reach of experts throughout NASA and industry, and will manage the wheel recovery efforts.

The team will continue to analyze recent telemetry received from the spacecraft. This analysis, and any planned recovery actions, will take time, and will likely be on the order of weeks, possibly months. Any planned commanding will first be vetted on the spacecraft test bed to validate command operability.

For now, PRS is working very well and keeping Kepler safe. We will provide updates on significant changes as the plan develops.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Ends Attempts to Fully Recover Kepler Spacecraft, Potential New Missions Considered

Following months of analysis and testing, the Kepler Space Telescope team is ending its attempts to restore the spacecraft to full working order, and now is considering what new science research it can carry out in its current condition.

Two of Kepler's four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which are used to precisely point the spacecraft, have failed. The first was lost in July 2012, and the second in May. Engineers' efforts to restore at least one of the wheels have been unsuccessful.

Kepler completed its prime mission in November 2012 and began its four-year extended mission at that time. However, the spacecraft needs three functioning wheels to continue its search for Earth-sized exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, orbiting stars like our sun in what's known as the habitable zone -- the range of distances from a star where the surface temperature of a planet might be suitable for liquid water. As scientists analyze previously collected data, the Kepler team also is looking into whether the space telescope can conduct a different type of science program, including an exoplanet search, using the remaining two good reaction wheels and thrusters.

"Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets including several super-Earths in the habitable zone," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon."

On Aug. 8, engineers conducted a system-level performance test to evaluate Kepler's current capabilities. They determined wheel 2, which failed last year, can no longer provide the precision pointing necessary for science data collection. The spacecraft was returned to its point rest state, which is a stable configuration where Kepler uses thrusters to control its pointing with minimal fuel use.

"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," said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Now at the completion of Kepler observations, 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?

An engineering study will be conducted on the modifications required to manage science operations with the spacecraft using a combination of its remaining two good reaction wheels and thrusters for spacecraft attitude control.

Informed by contributions from the broader science community in response to the call for scientific white papers announced Aug. 2, the Kepler project team will perform a study to identify possible science opportunities for a two-wheel Kepler mission.

Depending on the outcome of these studies, which are expected to be completed later this year, NASA will assess the scientific priority of a two-wheel Kepler mission. Such an assessment may include prioritization relative to other NASA astrophysics missions competing for operational funding at the NASA Senior Review board early next year.

From the data collected in the first half of its mission, Kepler has confirmed 135 exoplanets and identified over 3,500 candidates. The team continues to analyze all four years of collected data, expecting hundreds, if not thousands, of new discoveries including the long-awaited Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars. Though the spacecraft will no longer operate with its unparalleled precision pointing, scientists expect Kepler’s most interesting discoveries are still to come.

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for hosting the second Kepler Science Conference Nov. 4-8, at NASA's Ames Research Center. This will be an opportunity to share not only the investigations of the Kepler project team, but also those of the wider science community using publicly accessible data from Kepler. Registration is now open.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds

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.

Nearly 95 percent of these 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 previously identified exoplanets, which are planets 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.”

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star.

To verify this bounty of planets, a research team co-led by Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., analyzed stars with more than one potential planet, all of which were detected in the first two years of Kepler's observations -- May 2009 to March 2011.

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.

This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses. In our imaginary savannah, the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If you see two lions it could be a lion and a lioness or it could be two lions. But if more than two large felines are gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.

"Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates --but they were only candidate worlds," said Lissauer. "We've now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds."

These multiple-planet systems are fertile grounds for studying individual planets and the configuration of planetary neighborhoods. This provides clues to planet formation.

Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their sun's habitable zone, 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.

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.

"From this study we learn planets in these multi-systems are small and their orbits are flat and circular -- resembling pancakes -- not your classical view of an atom," said Jason Rowe, research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., and co-leader of the research. "The more we explore the more we find familiar traces of ourselves amongst the stars that remind us of home."

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.

The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal.

See here for discussion of NASA's Kepler and its search for extra-solar planets.

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