Kepler Gets an Extended Mission

The NASA Senior Review panel decisions are in. The panel assessed Kepler and several other astrophysics missions including Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope, XMM-Newton, Swift, Planck, Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope,and Suzaku. This is to evaluate the missions and decide if they should be renewed or approved for an extended mission. For Kepler, having launched in March 2009, the spacecraft is over 3 years old. The primary mission was to last 3.5 years with the goal to find and constrain the frequency of rocky planets and in particular Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone (the region around the star where liquid water could exist on a planet with an atmosphere similar to the Earth’s) of solar-type stars.

Kepler has been a spectacular success finding a treasure trove of over 2000 planet candidates in the first 16 months of data (Quarters 1-6), and revolutionized our understanding of planetary systems. But the Earth-sized planets are proving tricky because stars are much more variable than the Sun. This was unexpected,so instead of taking 3 years to confidently identify Earth-sized and smaller planets it will take 3 more years beyond the nominal mission. For NASA missions, you’re given the time you request when the mission gets selected to do your primary science goals and then can ask for additional funding for an extended mission. The Kepler spacecraft is in excellent health, with the only major failure being the loss of once of their science modules in Quarter 4. There is plenty of fuel to keep Kepler alive and pointed well beyond 2016, so Kepler team applied as did the other missions for funding to extend the mission another four years.

A NASA panel reviewed the mission, and the excellent news is that Kepler was approved for a 4 year extension!  They also recommended to extend all of the missions it assessed which is excellent for the astronomy community. You can read the entire report here. Congratulations to the Kepler team for the success of their program and thanks for the excellent data that we’ve been finding planets and other interesting things in with Planet Hunters. This is great news! So this means Kepler will be running an additional 4 years – so a total of ~7 years of data. This means we can probe planets out at even further distances. This will be particularly interesting because we have been finding these very compact multiplanet systems (some having more several planets on orbits smaller than Mercury’s), so I’m curious to see how many multiplanet systems that have planets at distances beyond an 1 AU exist.

So what does this mean for Planet Hunters? First off it’s mean we’ll have plenty of light curves to look at for a long while with the potential to find even more interesting things and planets awaiting discovery. But what’s going to change come November, is the there is no proprietary data anymore. Currently the Kepler scientists have a first crack at the data before it is released to the rest of the scientific community and the public. Kepler is currently observing Quarter 13 but we have only up to Quarter 6 data. In Novemeber this all changes – they’ll be another big data release in July 28 (Quarters 7,8, and 9 will be released) and the next on October 28 (Quarters 10, 11, 12, and 13 will be released) . After that once the data comes off the Kepler spacecraft and is processed by the data processing algorithms the data will be released to the public and the Kepler team at the same time and we’ll be showing the light curves as fast as we can get them on the site.

This is a new era for the exoplanet community.  I can’t wait for November, it’s going to be a great couple of years for Kepler and Planet Hunters if the past year has been any indication of the interesting science we’ll be able to do. In the meantime, there’s still lots of light curves to search through before the next data release and we’re starting to look for new planet candidates in those classifications from Quarters 3, 4, and 5  as well as  take follow-up observations of our highest priority candidates (more on that in next the few blog posts). So keep those clicks coming.

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