NASA’s Kepler Mission is a spacecraft observatory that scans a single large area of the sky in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It simultaneously measure variations in the brightness of over 100,000 stars every half hour, searching for the half hour to half a day “winks” in light output that happen when a planet transits, aka passes in front of its star. Transits are only seen when the star’s planetary system is nearly perfectly aligned with our line of sight. For a planet in an Earth-size orbit, the chance of it being aligned to produce a transit is less than 1%, and the change in light akin to the dimming of a flea crawling across a car’s headlight and viewed from several miles away. Check the videos for more of an idea of how this observatory works.
It was named in honor of Johannes Kepler, who described the motions of planets about the Sun in a precisely predictable manner. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has confirmed over 2000 planets. If you’d like to try your hand at sifting through the Kepler data, check out planethunters.org. Also check out the Kepler Mission on Facebook, where I learned that William Borucki, science principal investigator for the Kepler mission, received the National Academy of Sciences 2013 Henry Draper Medal for founding concept and visionary leadership of the project.
Image via the Planetary Habitability Library, who have a really cool collection of projects related to extra-solar life. Image Credit: The ‘X-mas Planets’ is a collage of computer generated images of habitable worlds by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) over an image of a section of the De Mairan’s Nebula (Messier 43) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Earth is at the top right. This image was done to celebrate the first year of the PHL’s Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upr.edu), ESA/Hubble, NASA.