Image: Kepler
NASA
NASA's Kepler mission is searching for Earth-like planets by looking for them to cross the face of alien stars.
By
updated 4/4/2012 7:39:44 PM ET 2012-04-04T23:39:44

NASA's prolific Kepler space observatory, which has found signs of thousands of alien planets, will keep hunting strange new worlds for at least four more years, the space agency announced Wednesday.

Funding for the Kepler mission, which has discovered more than 2,300 potential alien planets to date, was slated to run out this November. But a NASA review committee has recommended the telescope's planet-hunting effort be extended through at least fiscal year 2016.

"Kepler mission extended through FY16!" Kepler scientists wrote in a Twitter post today. "We are grateful and ecstatic!"

Searching for alien worlds
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. [ Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets ]

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.

More time to look
Every two years, NASA conducts a peer-reviewed assessment of the missions in its astrophysics division, an activity called a Senior Review. This year's committee gave Kepler high marks for both performance and potential.

"The Kepler mission is an outstanding success," committee members wrote in their report. "Kepler is not only a unique source of exoplanet discoveries, but also an organizing and rallying point for exoplanet research."

Extending Kepler's mission could yield big dividends for several reasons, researchers have said. 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. (It would take a hypothetical alien version of Kepler a minimum of three years, after all, to see Earth transit the sun three times.)

Seeing more transits will also increase the signal-to-noise ratio for closer-in planets, allowing more of them to be detected, researchers have said.

The review committee's report did not explicitly lay out funding for Kepler's extended operations, but Kepler team members have said that it costs about $20 million per year to operate the mission at its current level.

The review looked favorably on all nine astrophysics missions it examined — which also include the Hubble, Chandra, Fermi and Spitzer space telescopes — saying all had performed well and should continue operating through at least fiscal year 2014.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter:@michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments