Today’s Top Space Headline –“Kepler Mission’s ‘Earth 2.0’ May Be a Mirage”

 

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Armed with a deeper understanding of Kepler’s quirks, the astronomers argue they can more easily flag where and how the spacecraft’s minor defects could compromise data. The authors used this approach to re-vet Kepler’s data from more than 100,000 stars, hoping to find ways to more rapidly confirm strong planetary candidates and boost the odds of validating borderline ones.


A new analysis of data from NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission suggests that one of the telescope’s prized finds, Kepler-452b, might be a statistical mirage. Astronomers are questioning the existence of what might be the most Earth-like planet yet found outside the solar system, based on a reexamination of archival data.

 

Kepler 452 b was discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and announced in 2015, reports John Wenz in today's Scientific American. At the time it seemed like everything astronomers had hoped for in an Earth analogue: slightly larger and more massive than our planet, and in a habitable 385-day orbit around a star remarkably similar to our sun.

But at about 1,000 light-years away, Kepler 452 b is far too faint for easy follow-up studies. Its apparent existence is based solely on data gathered during Kepler’s primary mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013 before being cut short by equipment malfunctions. During this period the spacecraft stared continuously at a single patch of sky, waiting for any of the stars there to almost imperceptibly dim from the shadows of planets passing across their faces.

 

 

In a new analysis, reported last month in a paper accepted to The Astrophysical Journal, researchers take an extremely statistical approach to considering any given planetary candidate—averaging out errors from the entire span of the Kepler mission, and from every instrument in aggregate. In the process, they say they learned to better distinguish a true planetary signal from astrophysical false alarms or instrumental noise.

Their reanalysis showed worlds with orbits of less than 200 days were very easy to confirm, because these planets’ transits repeated enough to display a clear trend outside any background instrumental or astrophysical noise. But the authors found that confirming small, relatively Earth-size planets with longer periods proved tougher due to the premature end of Kepler’s main mission. With this in mind, they set their sights on one of the most marginal targets under these constraints: Kepler 452 b.

“The reason that my co-authors and I focused on Kepler 452 b is because it’s the longest period, [and the] weakest signal that’s been confirmed so far,” says study co-author Jeff Coughlin, a SETI Institute scientist who works on the Kepler mission.

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