Kudos to Kepler for a Job Well Done!

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[The Kepler Space Telescope Main Mission’s 4000+ exoplanet haul!]

NASA recently announced the final planet-finding tally for the main mission of the Kepler Space Telescope: a whopping 2335 verified planets outside our solar system and another 1699 candidate planets yet to be verified. Among these 4000+ potential planets are 49 potentially habitable bodies – rocky planets about the size of earth that inhabit the so-called Goldilocks Zone of their star (you know, not too hot, not too cold, just right!)

exo_dischist

[Exoplanet discoveries by year (does not include recent Kepler announcement)]

Take a minute and consider what this means. When I started teaching at CCSU back in 1989 there were NO planets known orbiting sun-like stars outside our solar system. None. Nada. Zippo. By the time I became tenured we finally knew of a single planet around a sun-like star. By the time I became a full professor we had discovered a handful. In fact, until Kepler started staring at over 100,000 stars in one area of the sky (near Cygnus) in 2010 the number of known planets outside of our solar system was only a few 100.

And then everything changed. Not only did we discover that planets were relatively common, but that there are more types of planets than astronomers ever imagined! Superearths, mini Neptunes, hot Jupiters, lava planets…. Suddenly our original sample size of 1 known solar system wasn’t so representative of the universe as a whole.

While the main Kepler mission has ended (thanks to failing systems that point the telescope), the extended K2 mission is still making discoveries, including new exoplanets. The TESS satellite will likely reveal another slew of exoplanets after its launch next March. But Kepler will always have a place in my heart as the telescope that COULD and DID change the way we think about the universe and our own pale blue dot of a world.

— Kris Larsen

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