NASA's Kepler Mission announced on January 4 the discovery of five new planets orbiting distant stars outside our solar system.
The Kepler Mission, officially dubbed NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone--where liquid water and possibly life might exist--and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.
The mission failed to find a habitable exoplanet, but the search will continue through at least November 2012.
Evidence exists for substantial numbers of three types of exoplanets: gas giants, hot-super-Earths in short-period orbits, and ice giants.
The mission draws scientists from across the country, including astrophysicists Jason Steffan, of Fermilab, and Matt Holman, of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The duo have adapted the commonplane particle physics use of algorithms for the Kepler telescope’s exoplanet hunt.
The astrophysicists have joined the Kepler Mission as participating scientists--collaborators drawn from fields outside of normal NASA research to expand the scope of the mission. They are looking for additional transiting planets.
The mission’s telescope can pick out the light from transiting planets 30 to 600 times smaller than Jupiter. Steffan and Holman’s computer programs can pick out even tinier, more distant planets.