KISSIMMEE, Fla. – NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered over 100 alien planets, which have been confirmed, during its K2 mission. Researchers made the announcement on Tuesday, Jan. 5, at the 22th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The findings validate the entire K2 mission’s ability to discover great numbers of “true, bona fide planets”, Ian Crossfield, an astronomer at University of Arizona, said during a presentation at the AAS event. He said that, during the first five 80-day observation campaigns, Kepler spotted over 60,000 stars and discovered 7,000 transit-like signals. Each one of these campaigns was meant to look at a different sky area. Crossfield added that each confirmed planet has just a 1 percent chance of being a false positive.

NASA's Kepler Spacecraft. Image: NASA.
NASA’s Kepler Spacecraft. Image: NASA.

NASA has so far confirmed 1,930 of the exoplanets found by Kepler, including 234 new exoplanet candidates the space telescope discovered in 2014. 4,696 remain unconfirmed.  Some of the 100 confirmed planets announced this week at the AAS meeting are significantly different from what Kepler observed during its original mission, which was launched in 2009, since many of them are located in multi-planet systems and orbit brighter and hotter stars than those in the original Kepler field.

Kepler has discovered during its K2 program an interesting system that has three planets much bigger than Earth. The spacecraft also found a planet in the Hyades star cluster, which is the nearest open star cluster to our home planet. Besides, Kepler has spotted a planet that is being ripped apart while orbiting a white dwarf star.

“It’s probing different types of planets [than the original Kepler mission],” declared Tom Barclay from NASA’s Ames Research Center. “We’re focusing on stars that are much brighter, stars that are nearer by, stars that are easier to understand and observe from the Earth. The idea here is to find the best systems, the most interesting systems.”

Originally launched in March 2009, Kepler’s first goal was to figure out how common Earth-like planets were. Over the course of four years, the spacecraft found more than 1,000 new planets, but in 2013 a malfunction caused it to lose its ability to observe at the exact same spot. This ability enabled it to note the tiny brightness dips caused every time a planet crossed its host star’s face.

The observatory had four wheels that allowed it to maintain its orientation, a technique that required extremely accurate pointing. After one of the wheels failed in May 2013, Kepler was no longer able to keep observing from the same perspective. However, the staff managed to keep it stable by using solar radiation pressure as some kind of a third wheel. The good news is that the space telescope became able to observe different patches of the sky for about 80 days at a time to search not only for planets, but also for other cosmic bodies and phenomena. That is how the K2 mission started in May 2014.

The other objects K2 is looking include supernovas and planets orbiting our sun. For instance, in 2014 Kepler observed Neptune for around 70 days. This huge icy planet has an extremely windy weather. Barclay said it had been the best and longest view of Neptune scientists had ever had and that Kepler provided them with relevant new information.

The observatory is currently spotting Uranus and is expected to target a bunch of asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter. Barclay commented that he gets most excited when studying the planets on the Solar System. After all, the things humans believe most widely known often come up with surprises.

Source: National Geographic