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Kepler’s surprise: Planet hunter also found supernovas

Now-defunct telescope captured five stellar explosions as they happened

SUPERNOVA SPOTTER  NASA’s Kepler space telescope, illustrated here, did more than just find planets. New research shows that it discovered at least five explosions of giant stars.

OXON HILL, Md. — NASA’s premier planet-hunting telescope had an unexpected talent: spotting the cataclysmic demise of giant stars. The Kepler space telescope detected at least five supernovas, giving astronomers a rare look at these calamitous explosions from the start.

From May 2009 until May 2013, when a critical piece of equipment failed (SN: 9/21/13, p. 18), the Kepler telescope found at least 3,500 likely planets orbiting other stars. Kepler’s planet-hunting prowess stemmed from doing one thing extremely well: measuring the brightness of some 170,000 stars. For all four years, the telescope stared continuously at a single patch of sky, collecting brightness measurements every 30 minutes. Occasionally the scope detected subtle dips in stars’ brightness, revealing that planets had crossed in front of them and cast shadows.

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