10 Cool Facts on the Kepler Space Telescope
Launched back on March 7th of 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope was named after the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. It was built as part of NASA’s low-cost (the total cost was about $600 million) science mission named the Discovery Program.
Initially, the Kepler Space Telescope’s planned lifespan was only about 3 to 4 years. Luckily, NASA doesn’t build anything less than perfect and the telescope is still in operation today and for the foreseeable future.
The Kepler Space Telescope is used as an observatory in near Earth orbit. Its primary purpose is to observe and study regions of the Milky Way Galaxy in close proximity to Earth. The Kepler Space Telescope’s goal is to search and find Exoplanets within a reasonable range of the size of Earth within what’s referred to as the Habitable Zone to the planet’s orbiting star.
What’s The Habitable Zone?
The Habitable Zone is scientifically known as the CHZ, which stands for the Circumstellar Habitable Zone. This is the zone in which an Exoplanet’s orbital distance from its star can support liquid water, with the proper atmospheric conditions.
The Habitable Zone isn’t a fixed distance, for example, 1 AU. 1 AU stands for 1 Astronomical Unit, which is the standard unit of measurement for the distance between stars and planets. 1 AU is 93,000,000 miles and is based on the average distance the Earth orbits our Solar System’s star, Sol.
FYI – the Habitable Zone is also commonly referred to as the Goldilocks Zone. They mean the same thing, so don’t get confused if someone uses that term.
What’s An Exoplanet?
A lot of people have heard the term Exoplanet used, but aren’t always certain of its meaning. Luckily, it’s pretty simple and something anyone can understand.
An Exoplanet is defined as a planet which is in orbit of a star, other than our Solar System’s star, Sol. The star which the Exoplanet orbits doesn’t necessarily have to be a solar system, but rather could be a single planet orbiting a star.
What About the Size of the Star?
When the Kepler Space Telescope is looking for Exoplanets, the initial focus is around finding a star that’s similar in size to our Solar System’s star, Sol.
Our star is considered a ‘medium sized’ star and can live for billions of years, which is assumed to be needed for life to form on planets.
Once a candidate star is identified, there is a 1 in 5 chance that there will be a planet which falls within range of the accepted size needed to be an Exoplanet – this being similar in size to the Earth.
How Many Exoplanets Have Been Found?
The Kepler Space Telescope is busy night and day trying to identify Exoplanets for Scientists and Astronomers to study. At the end of 2015, the Kepler Space Telescope has identified 1,030 Exoplanets worth studying.
Among the 1,030 Exoplanets the Kepler Space Telescope has identified, these planet’s sizes can range from the least massive planet named PSR B1257+12 A, roughly 2x the mass of Earth’s moon, Luna – all the way up to the most massive sized planet named DENIS-P J082303.1-491201 b, which is nearly 30x the mass of Jupiter! Can you believe that?
What Do We Hope to Discover?
Well, that’s a good question and I think there are several different degrees of discoveries that Scientists and Astronomers are hoping to find. Ultimately, many are hopeful that the Kepler Space Telescope is able to find an Exoplanet similar enough to the conditions here on Earth that we might feel there is or was or even could be a chance that intelligent life could survive and thrive on. Fingers crossed!
The most recent and closest discovery we’ve made is an Exoplanet known as Kepler 452b, you can learn more about this amazing and Earth-like planet in that article.
The Kepler Space Telescope uses what’s known as the Transit Method to detect Exoplanets orbiting their star. Check out that article for more information on learning how to identify Exoplanets!
I hear ya, on with it already!
Ok, here is our list of 10 Cool Facts on the Kepler Space Telescope, the telescope built by NASA and dedicated to finding planets outside our Solar System.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #10: E.T., Phone Earth
Kepler Space telescope is the world’s first mission to find habitable planets outside our Solar System. There are other programs in place which look for signs of intelligent life, for example, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), looks for electromagnetic radiation from all over the galaxy in hopes of finding messages or signals of life elsewhere in the Universe.
The Kepler Space Telescope is best described as a space observatory, dedicated to finding alien worlds orbiting other stars like our own Solar System’s star, all throughout the Milky Way Galaxy.
While there isn’t any other evidence that planets with atmospheres, supporting liquid water and within the Habitable Zone could support life, Scientists and Astronomers deduce from the conditions here on Earth that it’s the most likely scenario in which life could evolve from.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #9: Binoculars and Sunglasses
The Kepler Space Telescope’s sole instrument to gaze through the galaxy and find life is a photometer. A photometer generally detects and measures light and analyzes it using a filter and a monochromator.
Kepler’s photometer is designed to monitor on a continuous basis and send data back down to Earth immediately for Scientists and Astronomers to analyze. The Kepler Space Telescope simultaneously looks at roughly 145,000 stars, determining the slightest of changes in their brightness.
When the Kepler Space Telescope determines a change in a star’s brightness, it immediately begins focusing in and determining if the dimming was caused by a planet orbiting in front of the star. If yes, then NASA begins tracking it and determining if it’s an Exoplanet worth investigating further.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #8: Telescopic Size Matters!
The Kepler Space Telescope is an extremely powerful one, in fact, it’s one of the largest telescopes ever launched into space. The telescope uses a central mirror to direct into its aperture. The mirror is 55 inches and the aperture is nearly 38 inches.
The Kepler Space Telescope has the largest mirror in the known Universe, outside of anything found on Earth. The camera the telescope relies on a 42 CCDs at a 2200 x 1024 pixel, the largest camera ever launched into space.
The Kepler Space Telescope follows the Schmidt design, with an aperture of 0.95 meters and a 12-degree diameter. The telescope’s primary mirror has a 9-layer silver coating to support heightened reflection. There’s also a dielectric interference coating on the telescope to reduce absorption of moisture from the atmosphere, as well as reduction of formation to improve the capturing color.
So How Powerful is it?
To describe how powerful the Kepler Space Telescope is, imagine being on a boat in the ocean and you’re moving towards land. You look directly into the high-beams of the lighthouse on shore and are nearly blinded by its light. Now imagine having the ability to detect a speck of dust moving in front of the blinding light. Pretty impressive, huh?
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #7: The Greatest Peeper in the Universe
I mentioned earlier that the Kepler Space Telescope has the largest camera that has ever been launched into space. But what does that mean? A lot of people hear how many megapixels you have or that you have a DSLR camera and are impressed with your gear. However, your camera may be better, despite feeling inferior.
The camera onboard the Kepler Space Telescope has a resolution of 95 megapixels and has 42 charge-coupled device systems (each CCD is 50 x 25 mm and has 2200 x 1024 pixels).
Wait, 95 megapixels, but my phone has more than that! Like I mentioned, feeling inferior doesn’t always prove valid.
The large array of CCDs onboard the Kepler Space Telescope is cooled through a series of pipes that are connected to an external radiator. Can you imagine needing a system of pipes to keep your camera from busting?
The amount of data that can be read from the CCDs (they can be read off every 6 seconds) is too large to be stored on the telescope, so the data gets sent back to Earth for immediate scientific evaluation.
Therefore, only about 6 percent of the pixels get reorganized, compressed and stored onboard the 16 gigabyte recorder the Kepler Space Telescope houses.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #6: When Given Lemons, Make Lemonade
The Kepler Space Telescope is spinning out of control. Yeah, that’s correct and you’re not incorrectly imagining a twirling telescope in space that’s out of control. Well, that may be slightly overdramatic.
With the failure of the Kepler Space Telescope’s second reaction wheel (of the four onboard) in 2013, the spacecraft has been put in a state of rest. The Kepler Space Telescope needs at least three reaction wheels in working condition to stay in the correct orientation to study the specific stars it’s directed towards.
However, this does not mean that it’s the end of the Kepler Space Telescope’s scientific mission; but rather the current mission will be ceased and a new mission will spawn out of a new and modified plan.
Eventually, the scientific community got together and was able to help NASA determine what the next mission would be focused around. Given the Kepler Space Telescope’s present condition, the overwhelming vote was to use the telescope as a means of detecting habitable planets within the Milky Way.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #5: Earth, You’re Not Alone
Up until the modification of the Kepler Space Telescope’s mission, Scientists and Astronomers, or anyone for that matter had never actually discovered a terrestrial planet (outside our Solar System, hello Mercury, Venus and Mars!).
Certainly hypotheses were thrown around and models created, even the mathematics behind what a terrestrial planet would need and where they might be located was put to paper.
But it wasn’t until the Kepler Space Telescope pointed its camera out to the heavens in January of 2011 and discovered the first ever terrestrial planet, outside of our Solar System (Kepler-10b), of course.
As you can imagine, this is likely one of the greatest scientific finds of the history of finding things. But just wait a minute, discovering the first terrestrial planet wasn’t the only discovery that would shake the scientific community.
Kepler-10b wasn’t located in the habitable zone. Uh oh!
Regardless, scientific hypotheses are certain to change once sufficient data from actually testing or actually observing the outcome originally set forth.
Since the Kepler Space Telescope’s launch, Scientists and Astronomers have been able to find over 1,000 Exoplanets. These Exoplanets range in different sizes varying between that of Earth and even Neptune (which is 4x the size of the Earth).
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #4: Age Before Beauty
The Kepler Space Telescope has made significant discoveries while in operation. One of the most interesting and exciting of these discoveries is when it found the oldest star-planet system to date; Kepler-444.
Of all the star-planet systems the Kepler Space Telescope has discovered, nearly 5,000 Exoplanets outside our Solar System, Kepler-444 is older than them all at 11.2 billion years old.
Kepler-444 was found to have five rocky Exoplanets orbiting it smaller than Earth, pretty amazing, given our Solar System’s star is only 4.5 billion years old.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #3: Statistically, We’re Not Alone
One of the most exciting discoveries the Kepler Space Telescope has made is the vast amount of Exoplanets in the small area it’s scanned throughout the Milky Way is how damn common Exoplanet star-planet systems are.
Taking into account the unimaginable amount of galaxies in the Universe and the estimated amount of stars in each, the data the Kepler Space Telescope has produced suggests that there’s evidence of over a billion Earth-sized planets out there. That’s right, a billion, with a “B”.
With the help of the Kepler Space Telescope, Astronomers have estimated the total number of Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way alone to be in the neighborhood of 17 billion.
This number is based on the Kepler Space Telescope’s findings, suggesting that 17 percent of the stars (about one planet in every six star-planet systems) in the Milky Way have an Earth-sized planet that lies within the acceptable orbital range (Habitable Zone) of its host star.
Since the Milky Way Galaxy is estimated to have over 100 billion stars, the Earth is only 1 of 17,000,000,000 (or equivalent to 0.0000000059%) potential Exoplanets in our galaxy alone, to poses the qualifying conditions to potentially support life.
Now image this same scenario in the other estimated 999,999,999,999 galaxies in the known Universe. The resulting amount of potential Exoplanets that are Earth-sized and within the acceptable range of its host star, in the known Universe, equates to 16,999,999,999,983,000,000,000.
Imagine Earth being the only planet among all of those candidates to host life; 0.00000000000000000000588%. You’d have better odds of your ass creating a black hole in your bathroom toilet.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #2: C’est la vie, No More
The Kepler Telescope has found evidence of a small Mercury-like planet that is being ripped to shreds. Unfortunately, it’s about 1,500 light years away, so we won’t be able to use our telescopes at home to observe this phenomenon.
In May of 2012, the Kepler Space Telescope discovered a planet (roughly the size of Mercury) whose life is quickly coming to a devastating finale and assuredly one hell of a spectacle.
This planet is being drawn closer and closer to its host star, so close that its time to orbit is only 15.7 hours. This poor planet’s surface temperature is estimated to be in the ballpark of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
If intelligent life ever existed on this planet, it’s long gone or so dead they’re long forgotten. The conditions on this planet are likely what’s described in the Bible as the end of days. Imagine dust being hurled all around, clouds so dense you couldn’t see your own nose, volcanoes exploding at a rate unbelievable to any Geologist.
The surface is literally being scrapped off by its own dust particles. The gravitational force of its host star is ripping this planet to shred, causing it to appear to have a comet-like tail bursting from behind and rapidly disintegrating the planet itself.
Astronomers estimate that this planet will be completely gone in another 200 million years.
Kepler Space Telescope Fact #1: Our Long Lost Sister
The Kepler Space Telescope has proven itself nothing short of one of the greatest astronomical tools ever created by man. Our Engineers and Scientist’s ability to turn a tragic and problematic event into one of the tools to ‘bring light’ to many of the greatest discoveries in our existence is nothing short of amazing.
But what’s caught everyone’s attention and drawn a recent uproar in the astronomical community is the Kepler Space Telescope’s discovery of yet another Earth-like planet. Ok, so we’ve found over a thousand that meet this criteria, however, none as closely resembling the characteristics as similar to Earths’ as Kepler-452b.
*Before we get into the details of what is referred to as the “second coolest planet in the Universe”, let’s keep in mind, Kepler-452 is this star-planet system’s star. Kepler-452b is the Exoplanet that is orbiting Kepler-452. It’s confusing, so keep track.
The Kepler Space Telescope is credited with spotting a near Earth-sized planet (Kepler-452b) around a G2 type star (named Kepler-452), much like our Solar System’s star, also orbiting within the Habitable Zone.
Kepler-452b has an orbit only about 5 percent longer (the year length is almost the same as on Earth, 385 days to be exact) than Earth’s full cycle orbit around Sol, additionally Kepler-452b is also a rocky and terrestrial planet.
Despite the overwhelming amount of similarities between Kepler-452b and Earth, there are a few differences that need to be addressed. The star, Kepler-452 and the Exoplanet, Kepler-452b is older than the Earth and Sol.
Scientists and Astronomers have early estimates suggesting that Kepler-452b’s star has been glowing ever so bright for nearly 6.2 billion years now. This could change with further studies and observations, however, that’s nearly 2 billion years older than our Solar System’s star.
The age of Kepler-452 has caused it to expand and burn hotter through the process of nuclear fusion. The results of the star’s increased mass and hotter temperatures has no doubt caused Kepler-452b to be much warmer than Earth and possibly even without liquid water.
Another side effect of an expanding star is the increased gravitational force being exerted on its orbiting planets. Again, early estimates by Scientists and Astronomers have this star-planet pair experiencing nearly 2x the amount of gravity than experienced here on Earth.
With the conditions supporting or having supported the existence of liquid water, one of the most interesting hypotheses around the surface conditions of this Exoplanet is that there is or was a very realistic possibility that life currently or previously existed there.
We like to think of Kepler-452b as our sister-planet, with conditions being as similar as they are here on Earth, the possibility of liquid water, a rocky terrain and an orbit within the Habitable Zone, we are certainly going to be increasing our observations with the hope that communication is or was being transmitted from this Exoplanet into the ether of space for other intelligent life to find.
Unfortunately it’s so far away, even though in Universe-scaled distances, it’s literally “next door”, but Kepler-452’s solar system is about 1,400 light years away from our Solar System.
Think about it like this, any imagery we’re capturing today, occurred 1,400 years ago. If radio signals are being transmitted from Kepler-452b, since radio signals travel at nearly the speed of light, we’d be capturing messages 1,400 years old.
The New Horizons Spacecraft travels at roughly 37,000 miles per hour, if we left Earth tomorrow, we’d arrive in about 26 million years from now. Space is an amazing place, but distance is a difficult obstacle to overcome with today’s technology.
The Kepler Space Telescope is clearly one of man’s greatest inventions and has led to some of the most amazing and valuable scientific and astronomical discoveries to date. With future advancements in technology and increased budgets, we hope to launch additional and more sensitive telescopes into orbit to find the next Earth or even intelligent life, our brothers in the Universe.
Imagine, what if the Kepler Space Telescope never had an issue with its second reaction wheel. Would it be possible that we wouldn’t have used it to discover Exoplanets? What was once looked at as a devastating event, has turned into one of the most amazing scientific tools ever created.
Let us know what you think in the comments section below. And don’t forget, social sharing is caring!