(Sen) - NASA announced today that its Kepler mission would be extended by a further 4 years to 2016.
The extension provides four more years to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of stars. This is the area where the temperature is just right for liquid water to exist and thus for life to flourish.
The extention, which provides funding through to 2016, follows the Senior Review of NASA's operating missions.
Launched on 6 March 2009, Kepler’s vantage point above the Earth’s atmosphere gives it the unique capability of detecting small rocky planets around other stars.
While Kepler’s main objective is to find potentially habitable terrestrial planets, it can also discover larger planets as these are easier to detect. So far, dozens of gas giants and super-Earths have been found. The planet that is most similar to Earth so far is Kepler-22b, which is 2.4 times the radius of the Earth and orbits a Sun-like star.
"Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets and the study of stellar seismology and variability," said Roger Hunter, Kepler project manager at NASA Ames Research Center.
"There is currently no other mission in development that can replace or surpass the precision of Kepler. This extended mission will afford Kepler a unique opportunity to rewrite our understanding of the galaxy and our place in it."
Kepler is monitoring more than 150,000 stars to search for dips in light that could indicate the presence of an orbiting planet.
Staring continuously at the one star field for years made the design of the Kepler spacecraft quite simplistic, although it does turn towards Earth once a month to transmit data via its antenna.