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Reading Astronomy News: The Little Spacecraft that Could: the Kepler mission is over.

By Stacy Palen

Summary: The Kepler mission, after at least one resurrection, has finally come to an end. During its 9.5 year “lifespan,” Kepler discovered more than 2,500 planets around other stars and changed our minds about how common planets actually are.


Questions for Students:

1. Study the graph of Exoplanet Discoveries. The yellow dots show all the planets discovered by Kepler. Compare the sizes of these planets with those discovered before and after Kepler.

Answer: Kepler discovered smaller planets than those discovered before or after.

2. Study the graph of Exoplanet Discoveries. This graph shows that very few planets have been discovered with orbital periods smaller than one day. Why might this be?

Answer: This is as close as a planet can get, even to a small star, and still be in a stable orbit.

3. Study the graph of Exoplanet Discoveries. This graph shows that few planets have been discovered with orbital periods larger than about 300 days. Why might this be?

Answer: This could be a selection effect. Kepler uses the transit method to detect planets, but planets with large orbits are much less likely to cross in front of the star; our line of sight must lie exactly in the plane of the orbit to see the planet transit. The idea that this is a selection effect is supported by the observation that planets with long periods have been detected by other methods (the blue and gray dots), but not by Kepler.

4. Prior to the Kepler spacecraft, the percentage of stars with planets was unknown. Now that Kepler has completed its mission, do astronomers think this number is large, with many stars having planets or small with few stars having planets?

Answer: This percentage appears to be close to 100%. “…astronomers have used Kepler’s exoplanet haul to predict that every one of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way should have at least one planet on average."

5. Comment on the impact of the Kepler mission on the Drake Equation.

Answer: The second term in the Drake Equation is the fraction of stars with planets. This term is now quite likely to be nearly one, whereas before the Kepler mission, its value was only speculative.


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