"The science and new discoveries were fantastic and changed our view in many fields of astrophysics and planetary science, including, of course, exoplanets", Kepler scientist Steve Howell said via email. "Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars".
NASA made a sad announcement this afternoon: its planet hunting spacecraft Kepler has been retired after running out of fuel.
Nasa's Kepler space telescope, shown in this artist's concept, revealed that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The driving force behind Kepler was Bill Borucki, the now-retired principal investigator for the mission at NASA Ames. "Now we know because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".
The Kepler telescope discovered more than 2,600 of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets - the term for planets outside our solar system - that have been documented in the past two decades. Kepler used a detection method called transit photometry, which looked for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light of stars caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them.
Nasa says Kepler's mission may be over but its discoveries will be studied for years to come. "It was an extremely clever approach to doing this kind of science", said Leslie Livesay, director for astronomy and physics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who served as Kepler project manager during mission development.
Now orbiting some 156 million kilometres from Earth, the spacecraft will drift further from our planet after its retirement, the United States space agency said.
NASA's Kepler planet-hunting telescope now belongs to the ages, with its fuel completely spent and its instruments shut down - but the planet quest continues, thanks to a treasure trove of downloaded data as well as a new generation of robotic planet-hunters. However, although these planets tend to be the most enticing, according to Kepler, they are not the most common type of planet out there.
Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said, "I guess I feel like it was the little spacecraft that could".
Kepler allowed astronomers to discover that 20% to 50% of the stars we can see in the night sky are likely to have small, rocky, Earth-size planets within their habitable zones - which means that liquid water could pool on the surface, and life as we know it could exist on these planets. As of October 29, Kepler had detected 2,681 exoplanets, with an additional 2,899 exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation, said Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA Ames.
When it comes to the planet quest, the next big thing on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now due for launch in 2021 and may be able to look for signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets.
While Kepler was focusing on looking for planets around sun-like stars, TESS will advance its legacy by looking at smaller stars to find Earth-sized worlds out there in the universe.
"He put together a like-minded team of scientists and engineers", Hertz said of Borucki.
Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, some mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. "And the Kepler mission has paved the way for future exoplanet-studying missions".
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