Kepler Achievements Recognized by National Air and Space Museum

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The National Air and Space Museum will honor NASA's Kepler exo-planet hunting mission team with the 2015 Trophy for Current Achievement, marking its success in documenting the teeming presence of planets around stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

The six year mission is currently in extended operations, having overcome a major setback in 2013 with the failure of the second of four pointing system reaction wheels.

So far, Kepler claims 4,175 planet candidates observed by staring at 170,000 stars through the constellation Cygnus. Rigorous follow-up has so far confirmed just over 1,000 planet discoveries from the candidates, with the most common ranging in size from the Earth to Neptune.

Astronomers announced Kepler's first discovery of an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its star in April 2014. Kepler-186f orbits a red dwarf, the most common type of star in the Milky Way, about 500 light years from Earth.

The trophy will be presented in Washington ceremonies March 25. Managed by NASA's Ames Research Center, the mission team includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp. and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

'Prior to Kepler, we believed there were other planets around the stars," said Charles Sobeck, the Kepler project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center, in a video statement. "We believed what we had around our solar system was ordinary. What Kepler showed is that in fact it was."

A statistical analysis based on Kepler observations suggests there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way, or potentially billions of life-harboring worlds, according to Natalie Batalha, the Kepler mission scientist.

Kepler launched March 6, 2009 on a 3.5 to 6 year mission. Comprised of largely off-the-shelf, camcorder technology, the spacecraft orbits the sun in an Earth trailing orbit, where it looks steadily at a broad star field, something neither ground based observatories nor the Hubble Space Telescope can do. The observatory simultaneously watches for the slight dimming of stars attributed to planets as they cross the face of their host star, a mission concept championed by William Borucki of Ames, the Kepler science principal investigator.

The observatory was named for the 16th and 17th century German mathematician Johannes Kepler, who was the first to describe the motion of the planets around the sun.

NASA plans to follow Kepler with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Planned for a 2017 launching, TESS will concentrate on evidence of planets around the closest stars using similar observation  techniques and attempt to characterize their atmospheres over a two-year campaign.

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