NASA retires telescope that spotted thousands of planets beyond our solar system: all you need to know

By Elton Gomes

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has retired after a nine-year mission, in which it detected thousands of planets beyond our solar system and bolstered the search for worlds that could host alien life.

Currently orbiting the sun, 156 million km from the Earth, the Kepler spacecraft will drift further from our planet when mission engineers turn off its radio transmitters, NASA said.

The telescope shed light on the diversity of planets residing in our Milky Way. Its findings indicated that distant star systems are populated with billions of planets, and it even helped in identifying the first moon outside our solar system.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in an official statement.

Zurbuchen further said, “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

Why is Kepler retiring?

After being involved for nine years collecting data that indicate our sky is filled with billions of hidden planets, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel required for further operations.

When was Kepler launched, and what has it found so far

Launched in 2009, Kepler observed a staggering 5,30,506 stars and discovered more than 2,600 confirmed planets.

Kepler also identified thousands more possible planets that are pending further investigation. Kepler was conceived 35 years ago, with the objective of detecting planets by looking for the way a star’s light dims when a planet crosses the star’s face.

Kepler found a rich diversity of planets around many different types of stars. Red dwarf stars are known to be smaller and cooler than the sun, and Kepler found many of the planets around these stars. Some of these planets are potentially habitable, but have years that last only a few days.

The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concluded that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky planets that are similar in size to Earth.

These planets are located within the habitable zone of their parent stars – this means that they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water might collate on the planet’s surface.

How has Kepler helped planetary research?

Due to Kepler’s research, we have now seen some planets that orbit their host stars in only a few hours and are so hot that their surface rock vaporizes and trails behind the planet, similar to a comet’s tail.

We now know about other systems wherein planets are so close together that if you stood on the surface of one, the other planet would appear larger than 10 full moons. Another system is so crowded with planets that eight of them are closer to their star than the Earth is to the sun.

Thanks to Kepler, we know that there are at least as many planets in the galaxy as there are stars, and many of these new-found planets are unlike anything we’ve come across in the solar system.

TESS to continue Kepler’s work

Kepler was succeeded by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which was launched in April 2018. The washing machine-sized telescope will be able to scan almost the entire sky for a period of two years. TESS will continue Kepler’s mission of searching for worlds beyond our solar system.

TESS’ range of observation is 400 times larger than that of Kepler. More importantly, TESS will not always be inspecting the same section of the sky. TESS will divide the universe into 26 sectors, and will monitor each of them for 27 days.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius

astronomyKeplerNASAspace exploration