Space agency NASA has discovered more potential candidates for habitable planets outside of our own galaxy. Scientists manning the Kepler Space Telescope have identified 219 new habitable zone candidates. The good news gets even better with the scientists’ declaration that 10 of those are about the size of our own Earth and are in the life-supportive area of their solar systems.
This is just one of those instances when the well-lauded Kepler Space Telescope has been able to deliver information about exoplanets, or basically zones that can support life. NASA leverages the ability of the space scope to use the blinking and dimming of distant alien stars to identify planets orbiting around those stars.
The latest 10 Earth-size discoveries are the right distance from their host star, which means they are neither too cold or too hot and can, therefore, hold liquid water. The ability of a planet to hold water is key to it being able to sustain life. The discovery, however, sadly constitutes the near-end of the massive exoplanet search by Kepler.
Despite the fact that the Kepler Space Telescope is still in space searching for new planets, and will most likely go on for around one more year, its primary mission ended in an untimely manner when the instrument malfunctioned in 2013. Two of the four wheels geared to keep the scope pointed at one spot on the sky broke.
The engineers at NASA did not give up on the instrument completely. Instead, they found a way to use the sun as a backup reaction wheel. The solar panels on Kepler were then utilized to keep the craft in place while being pressed on by the physical force of light and with the unbroken wheels pushing back for balance. This provided the second chance that Kepler needed, which in turn opened up a new mission called K2.
On its own, K2 has been able to discover a number of exoplanets despite the mission being a bit different.
During the first mission, the space telescope stared at a single patch of sky to identify any signs of planetary activity around 150,000 stars in the Earth’s own cosmos. On the other hand, K2 is a slave to the position of the sun, so it can’t simply be pointed to any spot the scientists choose it to.
This means the scientists have to choose a target that supports the need to fill the deficiency presented by the broken wheels, at just the right spot for the sun to provide the required assistance and hopefully, with stars worth observing.
Right now, the observation team only has less than a hundred days, or 80 days to be exact, before the telescope has to move once more. While K2 has spotted new planets and still continues doing so, the richness of data originally provided by the first mission is severely lacking in the second.
That said, NASA brings the good news that the entire collection of data from the original Kepler mission has been subjected to multiple analysis to make the information good enough for drawing statistical conclusions. There are now 4,034 potential planetary candidates, 50 of them verified to be Earth-size and located in their star’s habitable zone including the just-announced 10.
Thirty of those fifty have been verified. We can anticipate additional exoplanet announcements based on the data reanalysis but most likely no longer from the mission itself.