NASA’s defunct planet-hunting space telescope Kepler is being repurposed and put back on the hunt for alien worlds after being out of commission for a year.
Although Kepler isn’t the only planet-hunting telescope, its sidelining was a major blow to the search for planets outside our solar system. Kepler has been a valuable tool in the hunt for alien worlds. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has identified more than 3,800 planet candidates, and scientists expect at least ninety percent will end up being confirmed. So it was incredibly unfortunate when the telescope’s mission was forced to end in the summer of 2013 after two of spacecraft’s four reaction wheels failed, eliminating the ability of the telescope to maintain positioning.
The Kepler mission team explored alternative uses for the handicapped telescope. And on Friday, May 16, NASA announced the approval of a new mission for Kepler called K2. Kepler Project Manager Charlie Sobeck of NASA’s Ames Research Center explains, “The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies, and supernovae.”
According to Space.com, “During the K2 mission, Kepler will stare at target fields in the plane of Earth’s orbit, known as the ecliptic, during observing campaigns that last about 75 days each.” The Kepler team explains that, when the spacecraft is in this particular orientation, the pressure from solar radiation will keep Kepler mostly balanced, which will enable the space telescope to function properly.
Scientists are still sifting through Kepler’s four years worth of collected data in search of potential alien planets. The University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) maintains a tally of confirmed planets. And the PHL announced on Friday, May 16 via Twitter that it will be updating its catalog on Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern following the airing of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.