NASA Releases Kepler Data on Potential Extrasolar Planets

NASA Releases Kepler Data on Potential Extrasolar Planets
Artist's concept of Kepler in the distant solar system. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

( -- NASA's Kepler Mission has released 43 days of science data on more than 156,000 stars. These stars are being monitored for subtle brightness changes as part of an ongoing search for Earth-like planets outside of our solar system.

Astronomers will use the new data to determine if orbiting planets are responsible for brightness variations in several hundred stars. These stars represent a full range of temperatures, sizes and ages. Many of them are stable, while others pulsate. Some show starspots, which are similar to sunspots, and a few produce flares that would sterilize their nearest planets.

Kepler, a space observatory, looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness.

The 28-member Kepler science team also is using ground-based telescopes and NASA's and Spitzer Space Telescope to perform follow-up observations on a specific set of 400 objects of interest. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations will determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets. That data will be released to the scientific community in February 2011.

Without the additional information, candidates that are actual planets cannot be distinguished from false alarms, such as -- two stars that orbit each other. The size of the planetary candidates also can be only approximated until the size of the stars they orbit is determined from additional spectroscopic observations made by ground-based telescopes.

"I look forward to the scientific community analyzing the data and announcing new exoplanet results in the coming months," said Lia LaPiana, Kepler's program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"This is the most precise, nearly continuous, longest and largest data set of stellar photometry ever," said Kepler Deputy Principal Investigator David Koch of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "The results will only get better as the duration of the data set grows with time."

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm, habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

"The Kepler observations will tell us whether there are many with that could harbor life, or whether we might be alone in our galaxy," said the mission's science principal investigator, William Borucki of Ames.

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Jun 17, 2010
Let's assume that such earth-like planets are identified. What would be the next step to determine that the planet is indeed hospitable to life as we know it and if it contains water. At the distances we're talking about here, this will be a major challenge to scientists to establish.
Next up - even if the planets were deemed to be hospitable to life, how would we establish if they actually have life on them? We're already struggling to establish if there's life on Mars, how in the universe are we going to confirm the existences of life on a tiny planet lightyears away?
It would be interesting to see what the researchers come up with.

But maybe I might not live that long?

Jun 17, 2010
But maybe I might not live that long?
We could only be so lucky.

Jun 18, 2010
"how in the universe are we going to confirm the existences of life on a tiny planet lightyears away?"

By closely studying the spectra of exoplanets orbiting other stars. Crude spectra of a few transiting exoplanets already exist. Reflectance spectra of these objects is still a ways off, but plans are already being made for instruments that can accomplish this feat. Spectral searches could look for complex molecules or unusual abundances of elements particular to life and not attributable to other physical processes. And that's just one angle.

Jun 22, 2010
This is exciting! Not only will viable destinations provide a healthy focus for our dreaming of the future, it will allow us to stop the slide towards self-destruction caused by overpopulating and depleting this world.

Perhaps we will be able to observe other civilizations soon, and will be able to learn a great deal about their organization simply by careful observation.

We're faced with a choice, make the leap to a cosmic culture, or face the collapse of our civilization as it declines under the the escalating incompetence of the oligarchs and tyrannical dynasties of excess.

The oligarchs' solution to our planet's problems is limited by their deformed minds to global slavery and/or continual warfare, which is madness and will result in damage to our capacities and evolutionary progression.

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