NASA's Kepler Mission Extended Through 2016
April 5, 2012

NASA’s Kepler Mission Extended Through 2016

Funding for NASA's planet-seeking Kepler Mission, which was scheduled to expire in November, has been renewed for four more years, the US space agency announced on Wednesday.

According to Senior Writer Mike Wall, the Kepler space observatory, which has uncovered evidence of well over 2,000 potential new alien planets since it was launched in March 2009, will continue operations through at least the 2016 fiscal year.

The additional funding was recommended by a NASA review committee on April 4, and later on that date, mission scientists said that they were grateful and ecstatic in a Twitter post, Wall added.

In comments made to San Francisco Chronicle Science Editor David Perlman, the panel of independent scientists charged with reviewing Kepler's progress deemed the mission an "outstanding success," noting that it had generated "a continuing stream of new findings," including in excess of 2,300 possible new planets located in solar systems throughout the reaches of our galaxy.

"Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets and the study of stellar seismology and variability," Roger Hunter, project manager for Kepler at the Ames Research Center in California, said in a statement Wednesday."There is currently no other mission in development that can replace or surpass the precision of Kepler. This extended mission will afford Kepler a unique opportunity to rewrite our understanding of the galaxy and our place in it."

The mission's primary goal is to discover planets roughly the size of Earth that are located in the habitable zone -- the area located within a planetary system within which liquid water could exist on the surface of the orbiting world -- around "sun-like" starts within the Milky Way.

According to NASA, Kepler does this by taking repeated measurements of the changes in brightness of over 150,000 stars, looking for periodic dips in brightness level that represent when a planet transits the face of a star. Three are required to verify a signal as a planet, they say.

To date the mission has discovered thousands of worlds located beyond our solar system, including the first undoubtedly rocky planet, the first multiple-transiting one, the first small planet to be located within the habitable zone, the smallest Mars-type planets, the first Earth-sized planets, and confirmation of planets that revolve around a pair of stars, otherwise known as binary or double-star planetary systems.

Of the candidates discovered, physicist William J. Borucki, the head of the international Kepler team, told Perlman that 61 have been officially confirmed as planets, and that 38 of the remaining exoplanets discovered by the mission orbit stars located within habitable zones.

The Chronicle also reported that, in addition to extending the mission's length, NASA has given the go-ahead for the Kepler team to observe additional transits in order to confirm each potential planet's status -- perhaps as many as eight transits, Borucki said, which should allow them to learn more about each type of planet being observed.

The mission's cost, which was $500 for the first three-plus years of operation, will now stand at approximately $18 million per year through 2016, Perlman added.