Due to fluctuations in solar pressure, the K2 mission has a little bit more observing “noise” than Kepler’s previous campaign, when it stared rock-steady at a point in the constellation Cygnus. Yet the K2 campaign has still revealed dozens of new planets.
Kepler finds planets by watching them pass across the face of their parent star. As the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 orbit their parent star, the mutual gravity between each of these planets causes small variations in the timing of their star crossings.
“If we can measure that slight change in the timing of the transit, that lets us infer how much the planet weighs,” project scientist Jessie Dotson told Seeker.
RELATED: Astronomers Capture the First Image of a Planet Being Born
Knowing a planet’s mass hints at its composition. Gassier planets generally tend to be larger, like Jupiter and Saturn. Rocky planets tend to be smaller, perhaps only getting as big across as four Earth diameters or so. Since life as we know it thrives on rocky planets, determining the precise mass of each TRAPPIST-1 planet will help us learn more about their possible habitability.
And that’s not all the K2 mission has in store. NASA temporarily put the spacecraft into sleep mode after 51 days in the K2 18th campaign, because engineers saw fuel fluctuations indicating that the spacecraft was likely extremely low on fuel. The agency paused operations and downloaded the data through NASA’s Deep Space Network at the regularly scheduled time.