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Twittering Kepler: How a Space Telescope Changed Our View of the Universe
Have you ever wondered if there are other worlds like ours in the vastness of space? If so, you are not alone. For centuries, humans have been fascinated by the possibility of finding planets beyond our solar system, or exoplanets. But it was not until 2009 that we had a dedicated space telescope to search for them: NASA's Kepler.
Kepler was a revolutionary mission that transformed our knowledge of exoplanets and their diversity. It also had a unique way of communicating its discoveries and challenges: through Twitter. In this article, we will explore how Kepler used Twitter to share its findings and engage with the public, and how it changed our view of the universe.
Kepler's Mission and Methods
Kepler was launched on March 6, 2009, with a primary mission to survey a patch of sky in the constellation Cygnus for four years. Its main goal was to determine how common Earth-like planets are in the Milky Way galaxy. To do this, it used a technique called the transit method, which detects tiny dips in the brightness of stars when planets pass in front of them.
Kepler had a 0.95-meter telescope with a 1.4-meter primary mirror and a 42-megapixel camera. It observed more than 150,000 stars simultaneously, looking for periodic transits that indicate planetary orbits. By measuring the depth, duration and frequency of these transits, Kepler could infer the size, period and distance of the planets from their host stars.
Kepler faced many challenges during its mission, such as high radiation, cosmic rays, micrometeoroids and malfunctions. The most serious one occurred in May 2013, when two of its four reaction wheels failed, making it unable to point precisely at its target field. However, instead of giving up, NASA engineers devised a clever solution: using the pressure of sunlight as a third wheel to stabilize the spacecraft. This enabled Kepler to continue its mission in a different mode, called K2, where it observed different fields along the ecliptic plane for about 80 days each.
K2 lasted until October 2018, when Kepler ran out of attitude control fuel and could no longer maintain its position. In total, Kepler observed more than 500,000 stars in 20 different fields during its original and extended missions. It also observed other phenomena such as supernovae, asteroids, comets and star clusters.
Kepler's Twitter Account
One of the most remarkable aspects of Kepler's mission was how it used Twitter to communicate its discoveries and challenges. Kepler had an official Twitter account, @NASAKepler, which was managed by the mission team at NASA Ames Research Center. The account was launched in February 2009, a month before the launch of the spacecraft, and posted more than 4,000 tweets until its retirement in November 2018.
Kepler's Twitter account had several purposes: to announce new discoveries and data releases, to share news and updates about the mission, to educate and inform the public about exoplanets and astronomy, to interact and collaborate with other missions and scientists, and to express its personality and humor. Some of the tweets were written in the first person, as if Kepler was speaking directly to its followers.
Some of the most popular and memorable tweets from Kepler include:
"I spy w/ my little eye...a planet! Actually 5 planets around star Kepler-11. All smaller than twice Earth's size. Tiny & tightly packed!" (Feb 2, 2011)
"I'm in a safe mode as engineers work to restore pointing stability. No science data being collected. I'm not in danger. Don't worry." (Jul 15, 2012)
"I'm thrilled to announce the discovery of my smallest exoplanet yet - Kepler-37b. It's about the size of our moon!" (Feb 20, 2013)
"Whoa! I just discovered my first circumbinary planet - a planet orbiting two stars - 200 light-years from Earth." (Sep 15, 2011)
"I'm back! Did you miss me? After a few days in safe mode, engineers have restored my health & I'm ready for science with my new attitude!" (May 21, 2014)
"So long, Earth. I'll be back in about 400 years. (That's how long it will take for my last signals to reach you.)" (Nov 15, 2018)
Kepler's Twitter account also had a lot of fun and witty interactions with other missions and accounts, such as @NASANewHorizons, @NASA_TESS, @NASA_Hubble, @NASAJPL, @NASAExoplanets, @BadAstronomer and @neiltyson. For example:
"@NASA_TESS Thanks for the warm welcome! I'm excited to see what you'll find. Remember: The more you know, the more you wonder." (Apr 18, 2018)
"@NASANewHorizons Hey buddy! I see you're awake now. Welcome back! Can't wait to see what you'll show us at Pluto." (Dec 6, 2014)
"@NASA_Hubble You're too kind. But then again, you always were a big fan of my work." (Oct 30, 2018)
"@NASAJPL Hey JPL, what do you get when you cross an asteroid with a comet? A: A mess. (And maybe a new class of object.)" (Oct 10, 2013)
"@neiltyson If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that question...oh wait, I do. It's called Kepler-22b." (Dec 5, 2011)
Kepler's Twitter account reflected its personality and humor, which made it more relatable and engaging to the public. It also showed its passion and curiosity for exploring the universe and finding new worlds.
Kepler's Legacy and Impact
Kepler's legacy and impact are immense and lasting. It discovered more than 2,600 confirmed exoplanets and many more candidates. It revealed that exoplanets are extremely diverse and abundant in the galaxy. It found planets of all sizes, shapes, orbits and compositions. It found planets that are similar to Earth in size and temperature, as well as planets that are unlike anything we have seen before.
Kepler advanced our understanding of planetary systems and habitability. It showed that most stars have planets around them, and that multi-planet systems are common. It showed that small planets are more prevalent than large ones, and that there are more planets in the habitable zone than previously thought. It showed that some planets have complex interactions with their host stars and other planets, such as tidal forces, resonances and eclipses.
Kepler was a remarkable mission that changed our view of the universe. It used Twitter to communicate its discoveries and challenges, and to engage with the public. It discovered thousands of exoplanets and revealed their diversity and abundance. It advanced our understanding of planetary systems and habitability. It inspired future missions and research in exoplanet science.
Kepler's mission may be over, but its legacy lives on. Its data and discoveries will continue to be analyzed and explored for years to come. Its Twitter account will remain as a testament to its personality and humor. Its vision and curiosity will inspire us to keep looking for new worlds and new possibilities.
As Kepler said in its final tweet: "So long, Earth. I'll be back in about 400 years. (That's how long it will take for my last signals to reach you.)"
Are you ready to follow Kepler's footsteps and explore the universe?
What happened to Kepler after it ran out of fuel?
Kepler was retired on November 15, 2018, after sending its final data to Earth. It remains in a safe orbit around the Sun, trailing behind Earth by about 94 million miles.
How can I learn more about Kepler's discoveries and data?
You can visit Kepler's official website at https://www.nasa.gov/kepler , where you can find news, images, videos, publications and more. You can also access Kepler's data archive at https://archive.stsci.edu/kepler/ , where you can download and analyze the data yourself.
What are some of the most interesting exoplanets that Kepler found?
There are too many to list, but here are some examples:
Kepler-22b: The first confirmed planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star, about 2.4 times the size of Earth.
Kepler-16b: The first confirmed circumbinary planet, a planet orbiting two stars, like Tatooine from Star Wars.
Kepler-186f: The first confirmed Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, which may have a rocky surface and liquid water.
Kepler-452b: The first confirmed planet in the habitable zone of a star very similar to the Sun, about 1.6 times the size of Earth.
Kepler-90i: The eighth and innermost planet of a system that resembles a mini version of our solar system, with planets of different sizes and orbits.
How does Kepler compare to other exoplanet missions like TESS and JWST?
TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is a successor mission to Kepler that launched in 2018. It uses the same transit method as Kepler, but covers a much larger area of the sky, about 85% compared to Kepler's 0.25%. It focuses on finding planets around bright and nearby stars that are easier to follow up with other telescopes.
JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) is a successor mission to Hubble that is expected to launch in 2021. It is a powerful infrared telescope that can observe distant and faint objects, such as the first galaxies and stars. It can also study the atmospheres of exoplanets and look for signs of life.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities for exoplanet science in the future?
Some of the challenges include:
Confirming and characterizing the candidates found by Kepler and TESS, which requires more observations and analysis.
Detecting and studying smaller and more Earth-like planets, which are harder to find and observe than larger and hotter ones.
Understanding the formation, evolution and diversity of planetary systems, which requires more data and models.
Searching for biosignatures and signs of life on exoplanets, which requires more advanced instruments and techniques.
Some of the opportunities include:
Leveraging new technologies and methods, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and citizen science.
Collaborating with other missions and disciplines, such as astrophysics, geology, biology and chemistry.
Engaging with the public and the media, such as through social media, podcasts, documentaries and games.
Inspiring the next generation of scientists and explorers, such as through education, outreach and mentorship.