Kepler’s Space Mission Comes to an End, and Begins Anew

Nov. 15, 2012, 8:45 a.m.

The Kepler Space Tele­scope’s primary mis­sion has ended, NASA an­nounced on Wed­nes­day, but that doesn’t mean that it’s be­ing shut off.

Launched in 2009, the $591 mil­lion tele­scope was de­signed to keep con­stant sur­veil­lance on a small patch of sky con­tain­ing 150,000 stars to meas­ure changes in light from those stars. Reg­u­lar, minute dips in the stars’ bright­nesss would be evid­ence of or­bit­ing plan­ets block­ing the stars’ light.

The plan was to keep the tele­scope go­ing for at least three years or so be­fore fund­ing for the pro­gram would run out. However, NASA de­cided back in April to keep the pro­gram go­ing through fisc­al year 2016.

Since it’s been in op­er­a­tion, re­search­ers us­ing the tele­scope have iden­ti­fied more than 2,300 pos­sible plan­ets or­bit­ing stars oth­er than our own, 100 of which have been con­firmed, ac­cord­ing to NASA. Of the plan­et can­did­ates, hun­dreds are the size of Earth, or­bit dis­tances from their host stars where wa­ter can ex­ist as a li­quid, or both. Li­quid wa­ter is es­sen­tial for life as we know it.

Based on Kepler’s find­ings, re­search­ers es­tim­ate that at least one-third of stars in our galaxy have or­bit­ing plan­ets. The tele­scope’s ex­ten­ded mis­sion will help sci­ent­ists identi­fy those plan­ets that could pos­sibly har­bor life, Kepler Prin­ciple In­vest­ig­at­or Wil­li­am Borucki said, ac­cord­ing to a NASA press re­lease.

Be­low are some high­lights of Kepler’s dis­cov­er­ies, end­ing with an an­im­a­tion pro­duced in Au­gust by Alex Park­er, a postdoc­tor­al re­search­er in plan­et­ary sci­ence at the Har­vard-Smith­so­ni­an Cen­ter for As­tro­phys­ics, show­ing all 2,299 Kepler plan­ets and plan­et can­did­ates dis­covered through Feb. 2012, rep­res­en­ted to scale, as if they all or­bited one star. The an­im­a­tion was pos­ted on­line to Vimeo and You­Tube.