80 New Exoplanets Discovered by Kepler Space Telescope, Precursor to TESS

NASA’s next-generation star scanner, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is currently orbiting Earth in search of potentially habitable planets that could be hiding in nearby star systems. But while the space agency’s golden child is just getting its mission started, an exoplanet-hunting veteran has already brought back a treasure trove of data about undiscovered worlds.

The precursor to TESS — the Kepler Space Telescope — has identified nearly 80 new exoplanets hiding among 50,000 stars during its K2 mission in record time. A report of this planetary study was published in The Astronomical Journal on Wednesday.

Compared to the 20,000 exoplanets that TESS is supposed to find, this is chump change. But the fact that Kepler is even still operational is a feat in and of itself. And the speed at which researchers were able to identify 80 Earth-like planets means the TESS mission could yield some promising results.

The Kepler Space Telescope has been in a heliocentric orbit around Earth since 2009. This eye in the sky was NASA's precursor to TESS and is still doing a stellar job.

NASA Kepler Mission/Dana Berry

“When the TESS data [comes] down, there’ll be a few months before all of the stars that TESS looked at for that month ‘set’ for the year,” Ian Crossfield, an assistant professor of physics at Massachusetts Institue of Technology said in a statement on Wednesday. “If we get candidates out quickly to the community, everyone can start immediately observing systems discovered by TESS, and doing a lot of great planetary science. So this [analysis] was really a dress rehearsal for TESS.”

The researchers behind this study used analytical tools developed by MIT to plow through all of Kepler’s observations. They were able to identify planets most similar to Earth and publish their findings only weeks after receiving the data. Studies of this sort usually take between several months to a year.

The fact that Kepler even got this data back to Earth was impressive. In May 2013, the spacecraft suffered a major malfunction that kept it from holding still when it was looking at a region of space. NASA engineers MacGyvered a fix by using the pressure of sunlight to stabilize it. This is what gave this mission its name K2 “Second Light.”

In May 2013 Kepler suffered a sever malfunction that robbed it of its ability to stay pointed at a target. Engineers developed a way to stabilize and control the spacecraft. This technique of using the sun as the "third wheel" made the discovery of these 80 exoplanets possible.

NASA Ames/W Stenzel

This science fiction-esque repair job and speedy data analysis show that scientists are ready for whatever TESS will throw at them.

The new satellite is expected to find upwards of 20,000 exoplanets, a tiny number compared to the trillions of planets in the Milky Way, but a whole lot more than 80. With this test run under their belts, scientists working with NASA can confidently go into the next generation of space exploration.

And who knows? The faster astronomers can determine which planets are the habitable, the faster they might be able to find forms of extraterrestrial organisms.

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