UCSB scientists Tim Brown and Avi Shporer are involved in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler mission, which has recently added 54 new planet candidates in the habitable zone of a star, bringing their list of planetary discoveries to a total 1,235 planets.
Kepler is a satellite telescope that observes the Cygnus and Lyra constellations and monitors 156,000 sun-like stars, with a sole mission to find Earth-size planets and planets in habitable zones of stars.
Brown, a physics professor and director of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, or LCOGT, in Goleta, and Shporer, a postdoctoral fellow in UCSB’s physics department, use the LCOGT and the Spitzer Space Telescope to verify if Kepler’s findings are, in fact, planets.
“What Kepler looks for is an eclipse. When the planet eclipses, it blocks light of a star by only like one percent, so we don’t see the full eclipse — we see a very small drop of light from star,” Shporer said. “We see if that drop of light is consistent with five other planets in the orbit and we look at the size of the planet, because it may not be a planet, it could be another star.”
Shporer said that these ground telescopes are capable of observing and verifying planets when they are visible from spring to early fall.
After identifying a planet, the scientists then look for similarities in size, mass and orbit to determine if it is Earth-like. The habitable zone is the area around a star that is just far enough away that temperatures are neither too hot nor cold for liquid water to exist. The orbit must be a year-long period around the star and in the habitable zone.
“We think that liquid is essential for the ability of life,” Shporer said. “The goal of Kepler is derived from the search of planets that are similar to earth and have liquid water on the surface.”
Of the 54 new planet candidates added to the list, five are Earth-sized. The rest range from super-Earth-size to larger than Jupiter.
Shporer said the long term goal of Kepler is to find an inhabitable planet to support the human race.
“Kepler is revolutionizing. It’s a huge leap forward with everything that has to do with the size of the planet,” Shporer said. “It’s only the first step for looking for life on other planets.”