Kepler Mission Team Wins National Air and Space Museum Trophy

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The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum awarded the 2015 Current Achievement Trophy to NASA's Kepler Mission Team on March 25 at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C. Established in 1985, the award recognizes outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology and their history.

Among the honored team members was Jon Jenkins (BSEE ’87, MSEE ’88, PhD EE ’92), the leader of the Kepler Mission’s data analysis group. During his years at Georgia Tech, Jenkins was advised by Paul Steffes, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. After Jenkins graduated with his doctorate, he joined NASA Ames Research Center to work for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Jenkins then joined the Kepler Mission Team in 1995.

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Mission has detected more than 4,000 candidate planets in orbit around other stars, or exoplanets for short. More than 1,000 of those exoplanet candidates have since been confirmed. These discoveries have revolutionized humanity’s view of Earth’s place in the universe by unveiling a whole new side of our Milky Way galaxy – one that is teeming with planets.

As a result of Kepler’s discoveries, scientists are confident that most stars have planets and that Earth’s galaxy may host tens of billions of Earth-sized planets that reside in a distant star's “habitable zone,” the region around a star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. The Kepler Mission is also establishing a foundation for future studies of exoplanet atmospheres that could eventually answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.

The Kepler space telescope infers the existence of an exoplanet, by measuring the amount of starlight blocked when it passes or transits in front of its parent star. From these data, a planet's size in radius, orbital period in Earth years, and the amount of heat energy received from the host star can be determined.

During its prime mission, Kepler simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars for four years, looking for the telltale dimming that would indicate the presence of an orbiting planet. In May 2014, Kepler began a new mission, K2, to observe a series of fields along the ecliptic plane, the orbital path of the Earth about the sun, where the familiar constellations of the zodiac lie. This new mission provides scientists with an opportunity to search for even more exoplanets, as well as new opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies, and supernovae. The spacecraft continues to collect data in its new mission.

Additional information about the group photo: Gen. John "Jack" R. Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, presents the 2015 Current Achievement Trophy Award to NASA's Kepler Mission Team. Jon Jenkins (BSEE 1987, MSEE 1988, Ph.D. EE 1992) is the sixth person from the left in the photo.


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