Kepler spacecraft finds 4 rocky gems among over 100 exoplanets

19 Jul 2016

An artist’s impression of a Kepler-discovered exoplanet. Image via NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft on its K2 mission has revealed another treasure trove of exoplanets, totalling 104, which includes four planets deemed ‘promising’ to harbouring life.

The Kepler spacecraft has been instrumental in looking into the distant universe to discover thousands of planets that vary wildly in size, composition and orbit, and its latest findings have identified 104 planets outside our solar system.

NASA’s measurements have shown that all of the planets are larger than Earth – between 20 and 50pc larger in diameter – and are located 181 light years away orbiting an M dwarf star designated K2-72.

Future Human

Despite the planets being far larger than Earth, the host star is half the size and brightness of our own sun with the planets’ orbital periods ranging from five-and-a-half to 24 days.

With this latest round-up of planets described as “extraordinary” by the researchers who published their findings in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, the tight orbits experienced by the exoplanets does not rule them out of the possibility of harbouring life. Four of the planets were deemed ‘promising’, two of which experience solar radiation levels similar to Earth.

Has provided a ‘few gems’

Kepler made this latest discovery by combining data obtained by the spacecraft with Earth-based observatories including the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

It was then a case of measuring the subtle dip in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star to determine the existence of an exoplanet, and the scientific readings that come from these discoveries.

“This bountiful list of validated exoplanets from the K2 mission highlights the fact that the targeted examination of bright stars and nearby stars along the ecliptic is providing many interesting new planets,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission.

“These targets allow the astronomical community ease of follow-up and characterisation, providing a few gems for first study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which could perhaps tell us about the planets’ atmospheres.”

In fact, Kepler’s ability to do this is something of a miracle given that last April it was revealed that it had entered ‘emergency mode’, surprising many of the NASA scientists back on Earth, but quick work managed to get its systems back online.

Since entering its K2 mission, Kepler has discovered 458 exoplanetary candidates, 127 of which are now confirmed discoveries.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic