Kepler Ends Its Search For Planets Like Earth

7:33 minutes

This week, NASA announced we will soon be saying goodbye to another old friend. For nine years, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has been orbiting deep space, giving us an unprecedented look at the objects within it. But after confirming the existence of over 2,600 exoplanets, and extending its mission for another five and half years, Kepler has run out of fuel. NASA says that the agency will soon be sending it’s final command to the telescope, shutting it down permanently.

[Meet the mortician who traveled the world to document how different cultures deal with their dead.]

Amy Nordrum, News Editor for IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to share that story as well as other short subjects in science.

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From the Washington Post, “So Long, Kepler”

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re talking about the most important science issues in each state, from wildfires to flooding, maybe renewable energy, even dry cleaning chemicals. Yes. And we want to know what’s the biggest science issue in your state, maybe your local community, maybe your town. We’ll be taking calls. And our number is 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

But first, prepare to say goodbye to an old friend. For nine years, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has been orbiting deep space giving us an unprecedented look at the objects within it. But this week, NASA announced that Kepler has finally run out of fuel at the end of its life. That means the agency will soon be sending its final command to the telescope, shutting it down permanently. Here to tell us about that story, as well as maybe better or more hopeful stories, Amy Nordrum, who’s editor for the IEEE Spectrum.


IRA FLATOW: Kepler has nothing to be ashamed of.

AMY NORDRUM: No, Kepler has succeeded its mission. It has actually surpassed NASA’s original expectations. Kepler was NASA’s first original exoplanet hunting mission. So exoplanets are those planets that exist outside of our own solar system. When the Kepler mission was first conceived, we didn’t even know of a single one. And now, Kepler has helped us build up a catalog of potentially as many as 4,000. It’s confirmed the existence of 2,600. And even after it shuts down, its data will be used to confirm what’s expected to be many more.

IRA FLATOW: Because there’s a lot stuff we haven’t analyzed yet.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s continued to send down data, even while it’s on its kind of last legs of its mission. And scientists will continue to analyze that information. And then just in April, NASA launched its next version of Kepler. It’s known by its acronym TESS. And it will continue on with Kepler’s mission to hunt new exoplanets.

IRA FLATOW: Is it going to be going out there exploring deep space with it?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s has a little different orbit. Kepler was actually orbiting around the sun, kind of trailing the Earth. And this new mission will actually orbit around the Earth in a very elegant orbit. And it’ll be able to look at whole portions of the sky, whereas Kepler was sort of focused on a more narrow sliver. So the hope is that it continues to build up that catalog and helps us explore new worlds.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it was a very exciting mission. We wish all those mission specialists good work.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on. There was a surprising study out this week about farmers markets. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, Penn State researchers visited farmers markets around the state and basically watched whether vendors were following common food safety practices. They wanted to know if the food that people were purchasing there was safe. And some of these practices include wearing a hair covering when you’re handling food, wearing disposable gloves or washing your hands in between handling food and money, and placing vegetables on surfaces that can easily be cleaned.

And they found that for the most part, vendors at farmers markets think that they’re doing a good job at these things, but they’re actually not. So the most common violation that they witnessed was vendors handling money and then switching over to produce without changing their gloves or washing their hands. And this is something that can transfer diseases. And then fewer than 24% of vendors used a hair covering.

IRA FLATOW: So they thought they were doing it, but they weren’t.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they also surveyed vendors– a different group of vendors– and said, you know, what are your food safety practices? What do you do when you go to the market? And a lot of them said that they did these things, but their observations proved different.

IRA FLATOW: So they were moving all that– what? E. coli– that kind of bacteria?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they sampled a number of the different items at these markets to see if there is an impact. And so they found E. coli on 40% of the beef samples that they collected, 28% of kale present at these markets, and 17% of spinach.

And so, you know, one takeaway for consumers is it’s definitely important to wash your vegetables, no matter where you buy them. But they’re also hoping that this research will inspire new food safety trainings particular to farmers markets because a lot of these vendors will go through trainings, but they’re kind of the general training meant for restaurants and they’re not particular to the circumstances of a market, where you don’t have access to all the time to running water and electricity, and you’re working out of a tent.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know how it compares to your supermarket?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, they did study a comparison of chicken– so chicken sold at markets and chicken sold in the grocery store. And they found more contaminants on the chicken sold at markets. And they think that this may be the result of a federal law that allows you, if you produce fewer than 20,000 birds a year, to be exempt from certain regulations, like having an anti-microbial program in place. And so they think chicken might be especially susceptible to that. They’re not sure if it’s the same for veggies.

IRA FLATOW: Gotcha. Next step for people who like to take charge of their health, two consumer health stories we should be following. Tell us about the first one.

AMY NORDRUM: Sure. The first is that 23andMe this week received at the OK from the FDA to produce a new report about how consumer’s genetics may influence the way that they metabolize certain medications. So this is the first direct-to-consumer report of its kind.

And it’ll measure three dozen variants across eight genes that have been shown to affect how your body metabolizes medicines. So the report will tell you if you’re a fast or slow metabolizer of about 50 prescription and over-the-counter medications. And in some cases, when evidence is available, the report can tell you whether you’re likely to experience reduced efficacy or side effects of these medicines.

IRA FLATOW: But it won’t tell you what your ultimate health outcome will be.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, and it won’t tell you what to do. So that’s the limit here. I mean, the idea– and this is definitely part of this trend in medicine toward what’s known as personalized medicine. So our bodies all process things differently– that’s, you know, food as well as medicine. And if physicians could know exactly how you or I process these things, they might be able to tailor medications or treatments more particularly toward us.

But this report is really a starting point. It’s not something that consumers would be able to take and apply. It’s still important for people who have this report done to talk to their doctors. And the FDA and 23andMe both emphasize that in their announcements.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about your second consumer health story is about–

AMY NORDRUM: Well, this is a report that came out of this week’s meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. They had their big annual meeting in Chicago this week. And one of the presenters there took a look at a different consumer tool. It’s WebMD. This is a website that a lot of people use to look up their own symptoms and kind of self-diagnose their conditions.

And WebMD has a feature on their site called Symptom Tracker– or Symptom Checker. And it lets you type in your symptoms and basically returns you a list of possible diagnoses that are associated with those symptoms.

And these eye doctors who did this study were like wondering how accurate those diagnoses were, and then also how accurate the next steps that the program suggests are. And they found that this tool is not very accurate.

So they ran 42 different scenarios through the tool and found that the tool only included the correct diagnosis in its list less than half the time. And it only put it at the very top about a quarter of the time. So if you are a consumer and you’re using this tool to kind of self-diagnose or make decisions about what you should do next, you would be wrong the vast majority of the time.

IRA FLATOW: Go see a doctor.

AMY NORDRUM: Another takeaway, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Go see a real doctor.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s important to do your own research and try to be informed, but that is definitely still important.

IRA FLATOW: We’re not quite there yet–


IRA FLATOW: –in AI medicine.


IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, news editor for the IEEE Spectrum, always good to have you.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

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