Kepler has retired from finding exoplanets that are orbiting distant stars, but the troves of data it has collected over the years will continue to help astronomers.
The Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes or MAST at the Space Telescope Science Institute will make the data accumulated over nearly a decade of deep space observation available to the public. This will allow scientists to make new discoveries even if Kepler’s mission has officially ended.
Kepler To Continue Aiding Scientific Exploration
Since it was launched in 2009, Kepler has aided astronomers around the world in the hunt for planets outside of the solar system similar to Earth and orbiting other stars. It worked by looking for the small and temporary dip in the brightness of stars, which are caused by orbiting exoplanets crossing in front of them. To date, Kepler has discovered a total of 2,818 exoplanets and another 2,679 candidates waiting for further explorations.
Kepler focused on the stars near the constellation Cygnus and found that small planets are common in the Milky Way Galaxy. After completing its primary mission within four years, the spacecraft was repurposed to look at other stars near the zodiacal constellations. The new mission was dubbed K2.
Aside from searching for distant exoplanets, K2 allowed scientists to observe other objects and phenomena within the galaxy, including stellar clusters and supernovas. The spacecraft also got to observe objects within the solar system including Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto.
All these and more will continue to be available to the public via MAST. In addition to the Kepler data, the archive also offers community-provided data sets for further scientific discoveries.
“The search for exoplanets using the Kepler data is still underway. Many are still hiding in the data, ready to be discovered,” stated Susan Mullally, a scientist working at the STScI.
TESS: The Next Step Toward Exoplanet Hunting
The MAST will also host the data that will be collected by NASA’s next great space observatory and Kepler’s successor, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS. The new spacecraft was launched back in June aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
It has already started its first mission observing more than 200,000 stars for temporary dips of brightness that signals planetary transits. The two-year survey hopes to identify exoplanets ranging from Earth-size to gas giants.