Life in the Universe


What is the Kepler mission, and how has it helped astronomers find exoplanets?

On March 6, 2009, NASA launched the Kepler mission into orbit around Earth. Beginning in May 2009, the sophisticated camera systems on board the spacecraft—named after the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630)—took repeating series of pictures of more than 150,000 stars, in a pattern and sequence that would allow astronomers to find planets orbiting those stars using the transit method. Everyone was happily surprised to learn that during the first sixteen months of data collection, Kepler detected more than 2,300 possible planets orbiting more than 1,700 stars! The process of confirming these planetary detections will occupy astronomers for many years; meanwhile, Kepler is scheduled to continue collecting data until at least the year 2016, with the promise of many, many more exoplanet discoveries to come.


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