NASA's Kepler Mission Discovers 100 New Exoplanets

ESA  HUBBLE  ESO  M KORNMESSER

The exoplanet discoveries by NASA's Kepler space telescope keep rolling in. These are measurements of drops in luminosity from distant stars, potentially caused by a planet passing in front of the light source, therefore momentarily lowering brightness.

"We started out analysing 275 candidates of which 149 were validated as real exoplanets", said study lead author Andrew Mayo, a PhD student at the Technical University of Denmark. The planets range from rocky, Earth-like planets to massive gas planets like Jupiter.

One of the planets discovered by the astronomers was found orbiting a very luminous star dubbed HD 212657.

USA doctoral student Andrew Mayo at the National Space Institute at the Technical University of Denmark elaborated on the findings, stating, "We started out analyzing 275 candidates, of which 149 were validated as real exoplanets".

In turn 95 of these planets have proved to be new discoveries, Mayo said.

NASA's Kepler mission was launched in 2009 to detect exoplanets and it was crippled in 2013 due to some mechanical failure.

However, astronomers and engineers devised a way to repurpose and save the space telescope by changing its field of view periodically.

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Between them, the Kepler and K2 missions have been used to find over 5,100 candidate exoplanets to date. With this discovery, there are now nearly 300 new exoplanets identified by Kepler/K2.

After detecting the first exoplanets in the 1990s, it has become clear that planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. That includes finding rocky Earth-sized planets that might be capable of supporting life.

And this is truly important - if we discover other planets, astronomers will get a better idea of what's in there, and what's the nature of those planets and things will be put in perspective. The dips are indications of exoplanets, which must then be examined more closely in order to confirm their nature.

The K2 mission is especially good at finding bright stars and planets.

"The follow up K2 mission, on the other hand, has provided us with a great deal of interesting individual planets and systems that we can now start to study in greater detail". The mission was revived as K2 when NASA figured out a way to use Kepler's thrusters as a makeshift reaction wheel, therefore retaining the ability to reorient the telescope to look at different parts of the sky.

Mayo and his team are understandably excited about the discovery of these 100 new planets and their implications for the future of the field. But since the dips in light can have other causes too, all such candidates identified by Kepler need to be tested using other means to validate whether they are in fact exoplanets or something else.

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