Update: NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope May Extend Its Search for Alien Planets

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Congressional funding for Kepler — which has identified 1,235 candidate alien planets to date and recently discovered the first exoplanet with two suns in its sky — is due to run out in November 2012,  but an extension may be approved is the new mission proposal is approved. The NASA Kepler team will know by next spring whether it's approved.

Here are a few of Kepler's 2011 headline discoveries:


Space Alert: Kepler Mission Discovers 1st Rocky Exo Planet

Search for Earth's Twin: Kepler Zeroes in on Milky Way's Sun-Like Stars

Search for Earth's Twin Turbo Charged: Kepler Space Observatory Pinpoints 5 New Exo Planets

Space Alert: Kepler Mission Discovers 1st Rocky Exo Planet

Search for Earth's Twin Turbo Charged: Kepler Space Observatory Pinpoints 5 New Exo Planets

Search for Earth's Twin: Kepler Zeroes in on Milky Way's Sun-Like Stars

Kepler Spacecraft Discovers 'Invisible Planet'

Alien Solar System Disk Reveals Birth of a Planet –1st Ever Observed

Kepler Discover "Star Wars" Planet –Orbits Two Stars

Is Discovery of Earth's Twin Imminent? Kepler Mission Finds Numerous Small, Rocky Planets

Kepler Spacecraft Penetrates Secrets of Red Giant Stars -Habitable Zones for Life 

"I think the discoveries we're making are showing what could be done if we continue to extend it," said Charlie Sobeck, Kepler deputy project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "So we're hopeful, but there's no guarantee."

When Kepler launched in 2009, the telescope's science mission was set to run through November 2012 — a lifetime of 3.5 years. But the instrument could operate for six years, or perhaps longer, if it receives more funding, team members have said.

It would cost about $20 million per year to keep the Kepler mission running at its current level of activity beyond November 2012, Sobeck added.
 
The $600 million Kepler observatory launched in March 2009. Its mission is to find roughly Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zones of their parent stars — a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it on the alien worlds.
Kepler's overall goal is to help scientists determine just how common such planets may be throughout our galaxy.

Kepler finds alien planets using what's called the transit method. The telescope detects the telltale dips in brightness caused when an alien planet crosses in front of, or transits, its star from Kepler's perspective. Kepler needs to witness three of these transits to firmly identify a planet candidate.

This technique has been extremely effective. In just its first four months of operation, Kepler discovered 1,235 exoplanet candidates. So far, two dozen of them have been confirmed by follow-up observations — including Kepler-16b, a world with two suns that was announced recently.
Kepler team members have estimated that 80 percent or so of the telescope's candidates will probably end up being the real deal. If that's the case, Kepler's finds to date would more than double the number of known alien planets, which currently stands at about 685.

The Kepler main mission is to help scientists determine just how many potentially habitable, Earth-size alien planets may be out there. Of the first 1,235 planet candidates, 68 are roughly Earth-size and 54 appear to orbit in their stars' habitable zones. And five candidates meet both of those criteria.

"What we're seeing is this trend — the smaller the planet, the more of them there are," Sobeck told Space.com. "That's great news for the idea of finding Earth-like planets, or Earth-size planets. Once you have Earth-size planets, all it has to do is be in the right orbit, and it's habitable."

The Daily Galaxy via space.com and msnbc.com

Image credit: with thanks to http://theperfectsilence.com

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