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NASA approves 'K2' mission for ailing Kepler Observatory

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NASA's ailing Kepler Observatory has gotten a new lease on life by way of a new mission dubbed 'K2.' The Kepler team approved the plan and NASA agreed to fund the mission for another two years, during which Kepler will continue to hunt for alien planets, albeit in a manner differently than originally intended.

Speaking on the new mission, Kepler Project Manager Charlie Sobeck, of NASA's Ames Research Center said that “the approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies, and supernovae."

Needless to say, Kepler is anything but dead.

Early last year, it was reported y NASA that its Kepler Observatory was facing dire technical problems as its 'reaction wheels,' which help keep the observatory properly orientated in space, were failing. Shortly after the news of Kepler's troubles leaked, another wheel broke, leading many to automatically assume that Kepler was would be reduced to glorified space junk.

Cue K2.

During its original mission, Kepler stared continuously at more than 150,000 stars in a small patch of sky K2 would take the instrument on a broader view, covering five to 10 times more area by studying four to six "fields" per year, observing each one for a minimum of 40 days but preferably for 70 to 80 days, according to Kepler project scientist Steve Howell at the initial proposal for K2. Ideally, Kepler would study 10,000 to 20,000 targets within each field, he added. All of these fields would be roughly in the plane of Earth's orbit because such an orientation would maximize Kepler's compromised pointing ability.

According to Howell, the K2 mission would likely turn up many small exoplanets around small stars, including some in the habitable zone. It could also spot a number of alien worlds around bright stars, which would make good targets for follow-up observation by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.8 billion instrument due to launch in 2018.

As an afterthought, Kepler could also gather data about supernova explosions, star formation and solar-system bodies such as asteroids and comets during K2.

For the record, K2 is set to start May 30.

Still, no matter what comes of K2, Kepler's scientific legacy is a rich one as it has, literally, added thousands of worlds to the known universe.

In recent years, it is the search for rocky extrasolar planets in their parent stars' habitable zones that has been the focus for astronomers. Thanks to advances in technology, exemplified by Kepler, that allow for the measurement of stars' brightness to almost unimaginable sensitivities, this can now be done as these Earth-sized planets were simply impossible to detect with the older Doppler Shift technology that was used to find the first extrasolar planets, all of which were Jupiter-sized giants.

To date, Kepler has found over 3,600 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 20% have been confirmed to exist but mission scientists estimate that, in time, over 90% of these potential planets will be confirmed as real. The interesting trend in these findings: Earth-like planets are being found at ever-increasing frequency and that smaller (Neptune and smaller-sized) planets are more numerous than Jupiter-like worlds. While certainly not being the fingerprint of an alien civilization, Kepler's discoveries are interesting in that it is now known that very inviting, Earth-like planets, can exist throughout the reaches of space.

The best part: there may be hundreds of more planets buried in Kepler's data. The problem: there's simply too much data for scientists to comb through in any timely manner acting alone. In fact, there is such a backup of data that NASA is even posting it online so that amateurs can help professionals sift through the mountains upon mountains of data to find planets.

In the end, no matter how K2 turns out, Kepler already has a rich legacy of discovery that is sure to keep pros and amateurs busy, a scientific gift that will keep on giving for years to come.

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