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Kepler's big year

Kepler's 2011 was filled with important discoveries. 2012 is promising to be even more ground-breaking.

January 01, 2012

Talk about a big year. 2011 turned out to be a banner year for NASA's Kepler mission, with the promise of even more exciting results to come in 2012.

The year started out with a bang - Kepler's science team announced that they had discovered their first rocky exoplanet and the smallest yet found, Kepler 10b. Though it's a world that's far too hot to support life as we know it, the result showed that Kepler will be a powerful tool for finding small, rocky planets like our own.

Less than a month later, Kepler upstaged itself with its most mind-blowing news yet. Tops was the Kepler 11 system, a bizarre, six-planet solar system in which all six planets were crammed into a space smaller than the one between Venus and our sun. The result was one of the most exotic exoplanet discoveries yet made, redefining the limits of what a solar system could be.

Kepler also heated up the winter of 2011 with news that it had discovered over 1,000 potential exoplanets, many in the habitable zone, and 170 potential multiple-planet solar systems. Astronomers across the world immediately began to pore over the data, looking to confirm Kepler's discoveries and use the mission's treasure trove of data to improve their understanding of how planets form. Within months, astronomers had discovered evidence of over 400 multi-planet systems in the Kepler candidate data.

As Kepler's data and results began to pile up, astronomers found new ways to verify and explore the mission's discoveries. Kepler 10c was discovered using a new technique called the "blender" method, in which the Spitzer Space Telescope was used to help confirm a Kepler exoplanet discovery. The cooperation between Kepler and other observing instruments, such as Spitzer and the Hubble Space Telescope, promised to help strengthen the integrity of Kepler's results and weed out any "false alarms" in the mission's data.

The next few months were a blur of news and notable exoplanets for Kepler. Kepler 14b was discovered orbiting one star in a binary-star system. Astronomers used the mission's photometric data to confirm that the world TrES-2b is blacker than coal. Transit timing was used to discover the existence of an "invisible planet" orbiting the star Kepler-19. In September, Kepler discovered a planet with two suns reminiscent of something from Star Wars and was featured in a Halloween corn maze.

But Kepler saved its biggest news for the end of the year. At the beginning of December, the Kepler science team announced the discovery of Kepler-22b, the mission's first planet discovery in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. The ground-breaking find is likely a sign of things to come, as Kepler's findings begin to encompass planets that have longer orbits, like our own. The same day, Kepler released more than 1,000 new exoplanet candidates, bringing the mission's potential discovery total to 2,326. Kepler's results are trending towards smaller exoplanets with longer orbits, indicating that a potentially Earth-like planet discovery may be close at hand.

Kepler ended 2011 with one more big news story - the announcement of two Earth-size planets, the smallest ever discovered orbiting a star like the sun. These two planets, along with the huge number of new candidates and the planet discovered in the habitable zone, bode well for an even more exciting 2012 for the Kepler mission. Will Kepler find more habitable-zone planets? Will these planets be similar in size to our own? Stay tuned...the future of exoplanets is now!