First Planet Candidate Detected by Kepler is Finally Acknowledged

Wednesday, 13 March 2019 - 9:07AM
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Wednesday, 13 March 2019 - 9:07AM
First Planet Candidate Detected by Kepler is Finally Acknowledged
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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nearly 10 years after its discovery, planet Kepler-1658b has now been officially recognized as an actual plant. It's all thanks to the efforts of a team of researchers from the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, led by graduate student Ashley Chontos.


But before the team was able to confirm its status, NASA dismissed it as an anomaly.


When it was discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, the initial excitement died down due to miscalculations about the exoplanet's host star. The sizes of both the planet and the star had been underestimated, resulting in inconsistencies and, eventually, the discovery's dismissal as a false positive.


In their paper published in the Astronomical Journal, the researchers explained how they were able to rectify the previous analysis: "Our new analysis, which uses stellar sound waves observed in the Kepler data to characterize the star, demonstrated that the star is, in fact, three times larger than previously thought. This means that the planet is three times larger, revealing that Kepler-1658b is actually a hot Jupiter," explains Chontos.


Kepler-1658b is one of the planets closest to its parent star, as it completes one orbit around Kepler-1658 in just 3.85 Earth days. It turns out that its parent star is an advanced and bloated version of our own Sun, about three times larger and with 50% more mass.


This re-discovery provides interesting new insights on how hot Jupiters behave as well as a better understanding of exoplanets' host stars. It can also offer a glimpse into how solar systems such as ours will turn out in the future as host stars age and evolve.


Kepler-1658b's re-classification is another accolade for the team behind the revolutionary space telescope. It has been responsible for approximately 3,800 confirmed exoplanet discoveries in its lifespan spanning roughly a decade. Kepler ran out of fuel on October 20 last year (2018) and has been retired by NASA. The decision was passed down just months after another iconic space exploration instrument, the Mars rover Opportunity, stopped communicating with the space agency. We covered this story on Outer Places, and detailed how Opportunity exceeded all expectations by staying functional on Mars for almost 15 years.


The recent Kepler-1658b news can be attributed to yet more innovations in analyzing astronomical data. Because the Kepler space telescope cannot be upgraded, scientists had to come up with new ways to interpret the data.


The use of stellar sound waves in Chontos' analysis was key, indicating the crucial role software innovations play in this area. 


NASA's Kepler/K2 Guest Observer Office has also developed numerous programs such as PyKE and K2ephem to help with analysis. PyKe is used on pixel files and it's instrumental in interpreting images captured by the telescope, while K2ephem is vital in reading the motion of one celestial body, such as a potential planet. Most of these were not available for their current build when Kepler was launched, and they signify monumental advancements in both astronomy and software development.


Fortunately, it looks like any further developments will have adequate funding with CBS News reporting on NASA's proposed 2020 budget that will come from the Trump administration. As NASA and other agencies launch new spacecraft and instruments, it seems apparent that even more sophisticated software will take on a significant role in exploring the vast outer layers of space.
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