Exoplanets

NASA Kepler Visionary Honored By American Association for the Advancement of Science

William J. Borucki, principal investigator for NASA's Kepler mission at the agency's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, has been named a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Borucki is recognized for distinguished contributions to the field of astrophysics, with his leadership of the Kepler Mission leading to the discovery of thousands of exoplanets.

"This is a worthy acknowledgment of Bill Borucki's vision and the commitment of the Kepler mission team," said Michael Bicay, director for science at Ames. “Kepler has re-written the narrative in contemporary astronomy by proving what scientists long suspected—that planets are common in our Milky Way galaxy. This essential leap in knowledge allows us to take the next important steps in ascertaining whether life could exist elsewhere."

Click to see large imageKepler is the first NASA mission to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone--the region in a planetary system where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. To date, Kepler has identified more than 5,100 planet candidates, of which more than 2,500 have been verified as bona fide planets confirming that planets are everywhere.

Beginning in 1992, with the first proposal for the Kepler mission to NASA Headquarters, Borucki led a determined team through a decade of tackling questions about technology that had not been flown in space yet. With the final concerns addressed, the mission once deemed impossible was approved for flight in 2000. 

"I am truly honored to be named a fellow by an organization that has a proud history of promoting advances in the sciences," said Borucki. 

Borucki will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin at a ceremony Feb. 18, 2017 at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachussetts.

Previous honors Borucki has received include the 2016 Franklin Institute Bower Award and Prize; the 2015 Shaw Prize; the 2013 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals presented by United States President Obama; and the 2013 Henry Draper Medal.

Borucki earned a Master of Science degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1962 and joined Ames as a space scientist that same year. The results of Borucki's early work developing spectroscopic instrumentation to determine the plasma properties of hypervelocity shock waves was used in the design of the heat shields for the Apollo mission. In July 2015, Borucki retired from NASA after 52 years of service at the agency. 

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

For more information about the Kepler and K2 missions, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

For more information on the AAAS Fellows program, visit:

https://www.aaas.org/program/aaas-fellows

AWARDS FOR EXOPLANET RESEARCH

MOUNTAIN VIEW – Three SETI Institute scientists have received NASA’s most prestigious honors for their work in the burgeoning field of exoplanet research.

Jeff Coughlin is the recipient of the space agency’s Exceptional Engineering Achievement medal. Jason Rowe and Christopher Burke are being awarded the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.

All three are team members for the Kepler Mission, one of the most successful science experiments of recent times.  Kepler has discovered thousands of exoplanets – worlds orbiting other stars.  These researchers were as important to its success as the shipwrights building the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were to the European discovery of America.


NASA's Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

Coughlin led the group that developed a technique for fully automating the extraction of planetary candidates from Kepler data. During the first six years of the mission, these candidates were manually selected from the roughly 20,000 observed transit-like signals.  But because human judgment varies among individuals, the catalog was both non-uniform and compromised by errors. 

“We turned candidate recognition into a task for computers,” says Coughlin.  “We were able to teach the computer to do what the humans did, but without the bias or the variability.”

Using synthetic data, Coughlin’s team was able to verify the performance of his digital analyzer, and found that it had an accuracy of 97 – 99 percent, something that was unimaginable with humans in the loop.

Jason Rowe’s work focused on deciding which of the exoplanet candidates found by Kepler were indeed actual planets.  In the past, this generally involved measuring stellar radial velocities with large, ground-based telescopes.  The one-by-one scheme was a bottleneck that limited confirmations to no more than 200 per year, world-wide.  Rowe developed a statistical analysis called validation by multiplicity which allows bulk checking of planets by the hundreds.  In 2014, his work resulted in the validation of 715 new exoplanets, doubling the number that were known.

“The validation of candidates via multiplicity allowed us to shift planet discovery into high gear,” notes Rowe.  “It’s the difference between building something in your garage and industrial production.”

While Kepler has discovered thousands of planets, it’s a very biased sample, favoring large planets, tight orbits, and small host stars.  Christopher Burke developed a method to remove and correct for these biases in order to ascertain what is the actual distribution of planets – and in particular, what fraction of Sun-like stars are orbited by Earth-size worlds in the habitable zone. 


Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. The sizes of the exoplanets indicate the sizes relative to one another. The images of Earth, Venus and Mars are placed on this diagram for reference. The light and dark green shaded regions indicate the conservative and optimistic habitable zone. Credits: NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

“Unlike our Solar System, with its inner rocky worlds and outer giants, Kepler has found that the galaxy teems with a rich diversity of planets,” Burke says.  “Rocky planets mingle with giant planets on short orbital periods, and planets of in-between size are common.”

At present, his analysis suggests a large population of planets like Earth, although more work is still needed to confirm this result.

A century from now, the present decade will be celebrated as the one in which researchers finally made an inventory of the planets that fill the cosmos.  It is a very special time for astronomy, and these awards are a tribute to some of the key scientists who made it happen.

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