Scientists were surprised by evidence that Ceres could be geologically active, has chemistry that could support life, and may harbor a subsurface ocean or may have harbored one in its past.
Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel.
"It not only showed us how many planets could be out there, but it also generated a whole new field of research".
Both the Kepler telescope, which identified more than 2,600 alien planets, and the Dawn spacecraft, which visited the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, ended because they no longer had enough gas in the tank.
When Kepler was still being brainstormed by NASA 35 years ago, there was no proof of any planets beyond our solar system. In the years since, astronomers have used Kepler observations to discover 2,818 exoplanets as well as another 2,679 exoplanet candidates which need further confirmation.
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According to NASA, that means they are located at distances from their stars where liquid water, a vital ingredient for life as we know it, could accumulate on the surface of the planet.
The information received from Kepler was made accessible to the public and resulted in a phenomenal explosion in citizen science - hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world helped sift through the data, revealing exoplanets that others (and other computers) had missed.
It discovered that around 20%-50% of start visible in the night sky are likely to have planets that may well be similar to Earth's own. Ceres and Vesta are important to the study of distant planetary systems, too, as they provide a glimpse of the conditions that may exist around young stars,"said mission principal investigator Carol Raymond of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a NASA news release". Now, however, Kepler's fantastic journey came to an end, many upcoming missions are waiting in the wings and will take over the exoplanet search. Indeed, one challenge for astronomers who want to study the properties of Kepler planets is that Kepler itself is often the best instrument to use.
Kepler became the most effective exoplanet hunter thanks to its powerful ability to keep a close watch on light emission patterns from thousands of stars in the Milky Way.
Planet stalking Kepler space telescope meets its end.