NASA Extends Kepler Mission Through 2016

As space agency announced on April 4 NASA’s prolific Kepler space observatory, which

has discovered more than 2,300 potential alien planets to date, will keep hunting strange new worlds for at least four more years. The $600 milllion Kepler observatory launched in March 2009 on a mission to find Earth-size planets in the so-called habitable zones of their parent stars, a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it. The telescope finds alien planets using what scientists call the transit method. It detects the telltale dips in brightness caused when an alien world crosses in front of, or transits, its star from Kepler’s perspective. The Kepler spacecraft typically needs to witness three of these transits to firmly identify a planet candidate. The instrument has been extremely productive, finding 61 confirmed alien planets to date, along with roughly 2,300 “candidate” worlds that still need to be vetted by follow-up observations. Kepler team members have estimated that the vast majority of these candidates, 80 percent or more, will likely end up being the real deal. According to researchers extending Kepler’s mission could yield big dividends for several reasons. Because of the three-transit requirement, most of the worlds Kepler has found so far zip around their stars relatively quickly, in close-in orbits. So granting Kepler at least four more years gives it a chance to look for planets in more distant orbits, allowing the telescope to survey the habitable zones of warmer stars. Seeing more transits will also increase the signal-to-noise ratio for closer-in planets, allowing more of them to be detected.
source:www.nasa.gov