Kepler And The Search For Extrasolar Planets

NASA’s Kepler mission was launched in March of 2009 with the purpose of simultaneously studying about a 100,000 stars located within a 10 degree field in the direction of the constellation Cygnus.  Kepler is looking for the dimming of the light from these stars to indicate a planet passing, or transiting in front of the star. To label a detection a possible planet, Kepler needs to see the transit at least 4 times.

Within a little over a year’s worth of operation, Kepler has found over 700 possible planets!  Since we’ve been turning telescopes to the sky we’ve only managed to find about 400 exoplanets, and these discoveries have only come in the last 5 -10 years!  But, just think about this for a moment.  Kepler only sees planets that pass between the stars and Earth (in our line of sight), and only those that have passed in front of the stars at least 4 times since it has been watching.  What about those planets that are orbiting perpendicular to our field of view, and what about those planets that have orbital periods of 3, 5, 10, or 20 years or more?

There are a lot more planets out there than we are seeing and I think a lot more that we may have ever imagined!  The more planets, the greater the chances of extraterrestrial life.  What wonders await us in the cosmos?!

(Check out Kepler’s web site for much more great info about this mission.)

Till next time

RC Davison

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