In an interesting twist to the story of NASA’s ace planet-hunting telescope Kepler, mission managers have announced their intention to bring the mission back online despite suffering a crippling blow in May.
The proposed extended mission, called simply “K2,” could see the orbiting space telescope scan huge swathes of sky, focusing on smaller stars that possess planets with very compact orbits. Kepler detects exoplanets that orbit in front of their stars, creating a slight dip in star brightness. This dip is known as a “transit” and thousands of candidate alien worlds have been discovered by Kepler’s sensitive optics.
“We expect to find dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of such planets,” said Kepler principal investigator Bill Borucki, of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “If we’re looking at smaller stars at shorter (orbital) periods, we may find, in fact, many of those are also in the habitable zone.”
According to Mike Wall over at SPACE.com, the K2 mission would look out across the Earth’s orbital plane, studying up to six regions in space. Each region will be observed for at least 40 days (with the hope of extending that time to 80 days). Each new region would consist of 10,000 to 20,000 stellar targets.
This technique differs significantly from Kepler’s mission before a faulty reaction wheel scuttled its unblinking stare at one patch of sky in the constellation of Cygnus. 140,000 target stars were found in that region. K2 would allow Kepler to survey ten times the area of its primary mission.
The reason for observing along the Earth’s orbital plane is that such an orientation will maximize the precision of the space telescope’s compromised positioning.
Although this could be an exciting turn of events, mission scientists say that this is far from being a done deal. We’ll have to wait until at least the middle of 2014 before K2 is approved.
Image credit: NASA