Artist illustration of the NASA Kepler Mission. Credit: NASA
NASA's Kepler space telescope, shown in this artist's concept, revealed that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA

After nine years observing stars in our Galaxy, on 30 October 2018 NASA announced the retirement of its Kepler space telescope. The University of Birmingham played a key role in the mission and is working with NASA on its successor satellite, TESS, which launched earlier this year.

The groundbreaking satellite transformed our studies of stars and the planets which orbit them.

The team in Birmingham used Kepler to study stars by observation of their gentle oscillations. The technique, known as asteroseismology, provides a unique window on normally hidden interiors of the stars and an ability to paint an exquisite portrait of the properties and characteristics of the stars, and any planets they may host.

Reflecting on the mission, Professor of Astrophysics Bill Chaplin said: "Kepler has revolutionised searches for exoplanets and studies of stars, and even though its mission is now over it will take many more years to fully exploit its wonderful data.

"Birmingham has been in the forefront of this work, using asteroseismology to study stars by observing their oscillations. The asteroseismology programme of Kepler has been conducted within the framework of the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium (KASC), a large international collaboration comprised of over 500 scientists from around the world.

Birmingham has led the coordinated activities for studies of stars like our own Sun, including working directly with the Kepler exoplanet Science Team to use asteroseismology to characterise stars discovered by Kepler to be hosting planets. This exciting work is now set to continue, but on a completely different set of stars, thanks to the recent launch of the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Birmingham has the same international leadership roles as in Kepler.

Launched in April 2018, TESS will survey the brightest stars in the sky to search for planets orbiting stars and to also study the stars themselves. Birmingham physicists are playing a leading role internationally in the asteroseismology programme of TESS. TESS is now returning its first data, and the first asteroseismic results are expected soon.