Jon Jenkins: Kepler’s stream of data still yielding exoplanet discoveries

"Exquisitely sensitive" instrument shows galaxies are "brimming with planets."

17 March 2014

Kepler vaulted into the heavens on March 7, 2009, initiating NASA's search for Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the planetary surface and support alien biology. Never before has there been a photometer capable of reaching a precision near 20 ppm in 6.5 hours while conducting nearly continuous and uninterrupted observations for several years. The flood of exquisite photometric data over the last 4 years on 190,000+ stars has provoked a watershed of results. Over 2,700+ candidate planets have been identified of which an astounding 1171 orbit 467 stars. More than 120 planets have been confirmed or validated, and the data have also led to a resounding revolution in asteroseismology.

Recent discoveries include Kepler-62 with 5 planets total, two of which are in the habitable zone, and 1.4 and 1.7 times the radius of Earth. Designing and building the Kepler photometer and the software systems that process and analyze the resulting data presented a daunting set of challenges, including how to manage the large data volume, how to detect miniscule transit signatures against stellar variability and instrumental effects, and how to review hundreds of diagnostics produced for each of ~20,000 candidate transit signatures. The challenges continue into flight operations, as the photometer and spacecraft have experienced aging and changes in hardware performance over the course of time. The success of Kepler sets the stage for TESS, NASA's next mission to detect Earth's closest cousins.

In early 2014, the team was busy working on a new mission concept, called K2, to repurpose the Kepler space telescope, after two of Kepler's four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which were used to precisely point the spacecraft, failed. The first was lost in July 2012, and the second in May 2013. Engineers' efforts to restore at least one of the wheels were unsuccessful.

Jon Jenkins is a Computer Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center where he conducts research on data processing and detection algorithms for discovering transiting extrasolar planets. He is the Co-Investigator for Data Analysis for NASA Discovery Program's Kepler Mission ( As the Kepler Mission Analysis Lead, Dr. Jenkins is responsible for developing algorithms for the Kepler Science Operations Center science pipeline and leads the team of developers who implemented the science pipeline. Dr. Jenkins received both NASA's Exceptional Technology Achievement Medal and NASA's prestigious Software of the Year Award in 2010 for his work on Kepler. Dr. Jenkins is Co-I for data processing of NASA's newly selected TESS mission which will perform an all-sky transit survey to identify the closest and best Earth-size and super-Earth- size planets for follow up and characterization.

He received the Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering (1992), the M.S. in Electrical Engineering (1988), a B.S. in Applied Mathematics (1988), and B. Electrical Engineering With Highest Honor (1987), all from Georgia Institute of Technology.

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