NASA’s Kepler telescope is normally used to search for planets beyond the Solar System. But by studying one closer to home, Neptune, it may help us find which of those more distant worlds could be habitable.
The event took place a while ago, from November 2014 to January 2015, but was recently highlighted by NASA in a web post by its Scientific Visualization Studio. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly new, although it’s cool to look at once again.
During this period, Kepler monitored the daily rotation of Neptune, the movement of its clouds, and the motion of two of its moons. The goal was to practice how we might perform similar techniques on distant exoplanets, and observe their own weather systems and local environments.
“The Kepler observations are unique because they allow us to see the light curve of an object close enough to image and resolve cloud features,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center involved in the project, in the web post. “These observations prove that rapid variations in light curves of brown dwarfs and exoplanets can be caused by changing clouds.”
Simon was also lead author on a paper in The Astronomical Journal that described the findings in 2016.
Kepler, of course, is more famous for finding exoplanets. Since it was launched in 2009, it has found thousands of worlds beyond our Solar System. At the moment it’s in the K2 phase of its mission, looking at a much larger area than it was before. It began this phase in November 2013, and has found hundreds of potential planets since.
Observing weather and other systems on exoplanets is a key technique that we need to master. To work out if distant worlds are habitable, we’ll need to be able to find out what’s happening in their atmospheres. Not only will we want to know what the atmospheres are made of, but also what effect they have on the planet.
We’ve done a few weather and atmosphere studies so far, but future telescopes like the various Extremely Large Telescopes (ELTs) being built will give us a much greater insight. And Kepler may have helped them get a bit of a head start when they do get up and running.