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Kepler Helps Reveal Answers to Big Questions about the Cosmos

By Jeff Zweerink - June 15, 2018

“But wait, there’s more!”

This infamous phrase preceded the offer of yet another “great” benefit if you bought a Ginsu knife set or a Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Infomercial producers seemed to know that they needed to provide some unexpected bonus for people to watch the whole sales pitch. And this phrase played on our desire to get something more. Not to be outdone, NASA just declared its own “but wait!”

After launching in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope operated well for the next four years before two of the reaction wheels broke, bringing the initial mission plans to an end. However, in that span it collected data leading to the discovery of thousands of exoplanets. Additionally, about 30 of those exoplanets were found to orbit in the habitable zone around their host star. After the second reaction wheel broke, NASA retasked the telescope to look at different regions of space as it continued to search for exoplanets, as well as asteroids, comets, and even supernovae. With the new task, they also renamed the mission K2. From 2014 till now, K2 discovered a few hundred additional exoplanets. While impressive in its own right, Kepler still has “more” to offer.

An initial search for supernovae by monitoring 100 galaxies turned up nothing. However, analysis of a different set of galaxies revealed 6 supernovae. And Kepler collected data on the supernovae every thirty minutes instead of the typical every day or two by most other telescopes. Armed with these results, a team of scientists was awarded more time to search for more supernovae and they found more than a dozen additional supernovae—with more data to analyze.

The importance of the K2 supernovae data rests in the detail and coverage it provides. Specifically, the K2 data gives information about the time period right after the star explodes and it will help astronomers understand the mechanism that triggers the explosion better. Thus far, it appears that multiple trigger mechanisms may exist which might help explain some discrepancies in measurements of the expansion rate of the universe from different methods. One source of discrepancies appears to stem from a difference in behavior of nearby versus distant supernova. This is an issue that K2 could truly help explain, which would lead to greater insight into the nature of dark energy, the composition of normal and dark matter, as well as other important questions related to the beginning and expansion of the universe. In other words, the insights gained will help address some of the big questions in science.

Unlike infomercials, the results from the Kepler telescope don’t need hype or emotional appeals. This remarkable instrument has already given scientists a treasure trove of exoplanets to study and now its supernova data promises to lend insight into the basic structure of the universe. There really is more!

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