Alien Life –Clues May Lie Buried in Kepler Mission Data

Habitable Exoplanet

 

“The Kepler and K2 missions just keep on giving!” Harvard astrophysicist, David Latham told The Daily Galaxy.  “Operations ended more than three years ago when the spacecraft ran out of fuel, but we continue to mine the data archives for celestial gems.”  

“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results.”

“The Search for Planets is the Search for Life” –What’s Hidden in the Data?

The discovery of thousands of planetary systems by Kepler has demonstrated that planets are ubiquitous. However, a major challenge has been the confirmation of Kepler planet candidates, many of which still await confirmation. One of the most enigmatic examples is KOI 4.01, Kepler’s first discovered planet candidate detection.

“KOI-4 is a perfect example for what is still left to be uncovered in the treasure trove of data from the Kepler mission,” astrophysicist  Ashley Chontos at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, author of The Curious Case of KOI 4: Confirming Kepler’s First Exoplanet, told The Daily Galaxy. “The low KOI number (for Kepler Object of Interest) meant that this was Kepler’s very first new planet detection from the mission. However, the confirmation did not occur until after the spacecraft’s retirement nearly 10 years later (which was also by accident). I believe that as we continue to improve and build upon our methods and analyses, we will continue to find these special gems in the exquisite Kepler data set.”

“The search for planets is the search for life,” said Natalie Batalha, a Kepler mission scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center. “These results will form the basis for future searches for life.” Launched on March 6, 2009, Kepler has opened our eyes to the diversity of planets that exist in our galaxy. The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars. That means they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water – a vital ingredient to life as we know it – might pool on the planet surface.

After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets – more planets even than stars – NASA’s Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel needed for further science operations. NASA has decided to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

“We were cautiously optimistic we would find planets,” Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist, recalled in a recent interview. “We really had no idea we were going to find so many.”

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system – a world between the size of Earth and Neptune – and we have much to learn about these planets. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison.

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago, we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said the Kepler mission’s founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. 

 

The K2 Follow Through

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. The mission team was able to devise a fix, switching the spacecraft’s field of view roughly every three months. This enabled an extended mission for the spacecraft, dubbed K2, which lasted as long as the first mission and bumped Kepler’s count of surveyed stars up to more than 500,000.  

“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results.

“We were cautiously optimistic we would find planets,” Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist, recalled in a recent interview. “We really had no idea we were going to find so many.”

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system – a world between the size of Earth and Neptune – and we have much to learn about these planets. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison.

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago, we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said the Kepler mission’s founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that’s full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy.

The observation of so many stars has allowed scientists to better understand stellar behaviors and properties, which is critical information in studying the planets that orbit them. New research into stars with Kepler data also is furthering other areas of astronomy, such as the history of our Milky Way galaxy and the beginning stages of exploding stars called supernovae that are used to study how fast the universe is expanding. The data from the extended mission were also made available to the public and science community immediately, allowing discoveries to be made at an incredible pace and setting a high bar for other missions. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.

“Lost Worlds” of the TESS Mission

Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel. The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

“Artificial Intelligence Will Reveal Out-of-the-Ordinary “Odd” Signals”

“With more Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning tools being applied to archive data, I think the next few years will see a great increase in the discovery of out-of-the-ordinary “odd” signals in the Kepler data –or really anything that doesn’t look like a simple periodic transit signal, wrote Douglas Caldwell, Kepler Mission Instrument Scientist at the SETI Institute in an email to The Daily Galaxy:  “I’m not sure I that I can make any accurate predictions about what we might find (in fact, I’m sure I cannot!), but I can say that I expect that the Kepler and K2 archives –and now TESS, too– will continue to provide new discoveries and surprises for years to come. Kepler observed over 150,000 stars nearly continuously for 4 years during its prime mission, collecting nearly 66,000 images of each star. It observed another 19 patches of sky for about 3 months each during the K2 mission. The Kepler targets have been scrutinized carefully for transiting planets, but that is a very specific signal: a period regular dip in brightness of the star. There have been searches for other signals, but they have not generally not been as sensitive or complete. I suspect we will continue to be surprised by the many strange things that stars and their associated planets do. 

K2 Data Lets Us View Our Own Neighborhood

“By looking through the plane of our Solar System, K2 data lets us see things in our own neighborhood,” continues Caldwell. “We have observations of Solar System planets and moons, asteroids, comets, and who knows what else. One great benefit of the TESS data is that it contains full-frame images taken every 30 minutes during the first two years, and now every ten minutes. These let us see not just the stars that were being monitored specifically, but entire patches of the sky continuously for times from one month up to a year. Searching these data for oddities will keep people busy for decades.”

TESS builds on Kepler’s foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth, worlds that can later be explored for signs of life by missions such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

The Daily Galaxy, Maxwell Moe, astrophysicist, NASA Einstein Fellow, University of Arizona via Ashley Chontos, NASA and Douglas Caldwell 

 

 

 

 

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