NASA Retires Kepler Telescope, the Most Prolific Planet Hunter of All Time

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When NASA first launched the Kepler telescope in 2009, astronomers were excited at the possibility of discovering new exoplanet outside of our solar system. Before Kepler, we had discovered just a few hundred exoplanets, but the technology of the Kepler, allowed scientists to add more than 2,600 exoplanets to our databases.

This week, NASA was forced to retire the Kepler telescope, after it ran out of fuel more than 96 million miles from Earth. Kepler’s achievements have led us to a greater understanding of the universe, and has helped astronomers discover tremendous things, like the fact that there are more exoplanets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

Kepler became the most effective exoplanet hunter thanks to its powerful ability to keep a close watch on light emission patterns from thousands of stars in the Milky Way. Called the transit method, Kepler would be able to spot an exoplanet if it saw a star momentarily dim, signifying a celestial body had crossed in front of the star. From this small amount of data, scientists would be able to determine an incredible amount of information about the exoplanet, including its size, distance from the star, and whether it was gaseous of rocky. Scientists would even be able to see if the planet resides in the Goldilocks Zone, the distance between the planet and the star where water and possibly life could exist.

With the data collected by Kepler during its nine-year lifespan allowed scientists to visualize a more complete picture of worlds beyond our own. Kepler discovered thousands of planets with varying characteristics. Some were gas giants similar to Jupiter and Saturn, while others were rocky like Mars and Earth, a much rarer type of exoplanet.

One such planet, Kepler-186f, is very much like Earth. Residing about 500 light years away, Kepler-186f resides within the hospitable zone of its orbit around its star, and could be a very strong candidate for having conditions suitable for extraterrestrial life. This is just one of thousands of planets that could potentially be very similar to Earth.

With Kepler retiring after an illustrious planet-hunting career, a new telescope will take its place. TESS will become the newest exoplanet hunter NASA will use to continue to survey the sky and discover new worlds. As for Kepler, it will remain in its orbit for eternity, never coming closer than a million miles to Earth.

Avid writer and reader with a curious mind. I'm always looking to get the most out of life! Follow me on Twitter @whatsaschoon

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