Since my last update, the team has participated in some major events in the last 30 days. On Feb. 29, 2012, a Kepler project team contingent briefed a senior review panel and NASA Headquarters members on a proposal for extending the Kepler baseline mission. Satellite operations are scheduled to conclude in November 2012. The extended mission briefing proposed an additional two years of science data collection with an option for another two years beyond that. On March 7, the Kepler mission team received the 2012 Aviation Week Laureate Award for Space at a formal dinner in Washington DC. This is a significant honor, and the team is humbled by the selection for such a prestigious award.
Meanwhile, routine spacecraft operations continued as the operations team recently downlinked the latest month of science data without any issues. The download was for the second month of Quarter 12. The operation occurred over Feb. 29 – March 1, 2012 with about 21 hours interruption in science data collection. The team continues to monitor increased solar activity as our sun is exhibiting an increase in solar flares and coronal mass ejections. During these events, elevated dark current and background levels are seen in the photometry data, and the fine guidance sensors and star trackers have seen an increase in noise. However, the spacecraft has remained in science attitude, and in finepoint as it continues to monitor the Kepler star field. Noise levels returned to nominal as soon as the event ends. Each month after downlinking the full resolution data, spacecraft and photometer health are assessed as part of the standard processing and we will continue to monitor the impact of these events. So far, it seems the spacecraft has "weathered" these solar events, as science data collection for Quarter 12 month three is well underway.
On Feb. 27, project team scientists released to the public an updated catalog of Kepler discoveries. As noted in the release, "…new transiting planet candidates are identified in 16 months (May 2009 - September 2010) of data from the Kepler spacecraft. Nearly 5,000 periodic transit-like signals are vetted against astrophysical and instrumental false positives yielding 1,091 viable new planet candidates, bringing the total count up to over 2,300. Improved vetting metrics are employed, contributing to higher catalog reliability."
Our team has also been busy in the Kepler Science Operations center (SOC). The SOC 8.1 software release, which had reached code-complete in January 2012, completed its verification and validation phase in early March 2012 and was declared ready for operations. As a reminder, the SOC 8.1 release will improve the pre-search data conditioning algorithms, enhance the transiting planet search and data validation algorithms, improve the data archiving products, and improve the data storage performance to handle an increasingly large volume of data. As the code was nearing its operational readiness state, many SOC members had already turned their attention to the next software release, SOC software release 8.2. SOC 8.2 adds features to: (a) improve corrections of the systematic errors in stellar flux time series; (b) improves sensitivity to planetary systems with two transits only; and (c) improves sensitivity to small planets in multiple planet systems.
On March 6, 2012, the team commemorated the third anniversary of Kepler's launch. A brief team meeting was held to discuss various topics, including review of the latest science data, a recap of the senior review extended mission proposal activities, and to share our favorite memories of three years on orbit. Many members of the team shared a retrospective of the past several years on the mission's Facebook page including personal stories, photos and video.
Finally, on March 16, 2012, NASA's Ames Research Center teamed up with Yelp, an urban online city review guide, to deliver the first Invade Your Space NASA Field Trip. The group of Yelpers got an inside look at the Vertical Motion Simulator, the FutureFlight Central facility, and the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility – the home of Pleiades, the world's 7th fastest supercomputer. Todd Klaus, lead software engineer in the Science Operations Center, and Chris Henze, principal investigator at NAS, treated the Yelpers to a visually stunning presentation of Kepler's search for Earth-size planets utilizing the NAS Visual Lab's 128-screen hyperwall-2, capable of rendering one quarter billion pixel graphics. It is one of world's highest resolution scientific visualization and data exploration environment. You can watch presentations from the field trip on YouTube (courtesy of dothewww).