NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Spacecraft is having technical difficulties, and scientists are hoping it isn’t permanently disabled.
Named for mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, the spacecraft was launched in 2009. Kepler’s mission is to seek out Earth-like planets in two nearby galaxies.
How do you find a planet belonging to a distant star? The answer is that you look for slight dips in the star’s light as the planet crosses in front of it. Then you work on figuring out the approximate size of the planet and its distance from the star. ”Earth-like” planets are those found in a distance from the star where water may exist in liquid form. This area is also known as the Goldilocks zone – a place in space where conditions are not too hot and not too cold, but rather “just right” to possibly harbor extra-terrestrial life. To date, Kepler has identified 132 confirmed planets and 2,740 planet candidates.
Kepler’s problem is caused by a malfunctioning reaction wheel designed to keep the spacecraft pointed at specific areas of the Milky Way. Kepler orbits in our solar system at approximately the same distance from the sun as Earth does–but too far away for our astronauts to visit and fix it. Yesterday, NASA announced that the failure of a second reaction wheel means Kepler will not likely return to the high pointing accuracy that enables it to take high quality, specifically targeted images. The spacecraft still has plenty of fuel, though, and will continue to collect data as engineers try to regain control of the reaction wheel. “Even if data collection were to end,” NASA notes, ”the mission has substantial quantities of data on the ground yet to be fully analyzed, and the string of scientific discoveries is expected to continue for years to come.”
While we wait for NASA to find a fix for Kepler, there is still plenty of data to sift through and new planets to discover. You can help though the latest Zooniverse project, Planet Hunters. Once you’ve created an account (if you’ve participated in any other Zooniverse projects, like Seafloor Explorer, you can use the same account), you then take a tutorial and review images of “light curves,” looking for dips in the curves that appear when a planet passes in front of the star you’re observing. They’re simple back and white images, and your job is to identify patterns and changes in them. Scientist think that the human brain is better at identifying the significant dips in the light curves than any computer, and they hope that the Zooniverse information will help establish new and better classification for the light curves. For each image there is also an opportunity to contact Zooniverse with a question or an observation you might have. Zooniverse users have already found two confirmed exoplanets of their own!
For detailed answers to all kinds of questions about Kepler’s mission, visit NASA’s Kepler Frequently Asked Question page. The Kepler NASA site is full of great information about the project, and you can get updates on the status of repairs, too.