Astronomers Discover First Multiple-Planet System From K2

The artistic concept shows NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2. Using publicly available data, astronomers may have confirmed K2's first discovery of star with more than one planet. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

The artistic concept shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2. Using publicly available data, astronomers may have confirmed K2’s first discovery of star with more than one planet. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

January 21, 2015 – Astronomers using data from the NASA Kepler spacecraft’s reborn K2 mission may have made its first discovery of a star with three exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than our sun. A paper reporting this discovery has been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Ranging in size from fifty percent larger to a little more than twice the size of Earth, the possible planets orbit a star about half the size and mass of our sun. The outermost planet orbits on the warm edge of the habitable zone, the distance from a star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. The star, called EPIC 2011367065, home to these possible planets is about 150 light-years away in the constellation Leo.

“We are delighted to see the enthusiastic response for K2. The mission has extended the telescope’s search capability to a new part of the sky, marking the first K2 exoplanet discovery less than a month ago, and now the possible discovery of the first K2 multiple-planet system,” said Charles Sobeck, Kepler project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA. “We look forward to the outcome of the peer-review process of this latest result.”

Since Kepler launched in March 2009, a team of 20 University of Colorado students and 16 Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) professionals have controlled the spacecraft from the LASP Mission Operations Center in Boulder, Colorado.

The original Kepler mission conducted a survey of approximately 150,000 stars in the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-sized planets with the potential to support life. To date, Kepler’s data has offered scientists an assortment of more than 4,000 candidate planets for further study — the 1,000th of which was recently verified.

After the second wheel of Kepler’s guidance control system failed last year during the spacecraft’s extended mission, engineers devised an ingenious way to repurpose Kepler for the K2 mission and continue its search of the cosmos for other worlds. A team of scientists and engineers crafted a resourceful strategy to use pressure from sunlight as a “virtual reaction wheel” to help control the spacecraft.

The resulting K2 mission promises to not only continue Kepler’s planet hunt, but also to expand the search to bright nearby stars that harbor planets that can be studied in detail and better understand their composition. K2 also will introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, active galaxies and supernovae.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.