Kepler telescope dead after finding thousands of worlds

Cristina Cross
November 3, 2018

There two vastly different NASA spacecraft are about to run out of fuel: The Kepler spacecraft, which spent nine years in deep space collecting data that detected thousands of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system; and the Dawn spacecraft, which spent 11 years orbiting and studying the main asteroid belt's two largest objects, Vesta and Ceres.

The spacecraft, which is now orbiting the sun 94 million miles (156 million kilometers) from Earth, will drift further from our planet when mission engineers turn off its radio transmitters, the United States space agency said.

The space telescope will remain in its current orbit, which is a safe distance from Earth, officials said. Kepler was created to survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy to determine the number of sun-like stars that have Earth-size and larger planets, including those that lie in a star's 'habitable zone, ' a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist.

"The Kepler mission has been an enormous success", said Bill Borucki, the original Kepler principal investigator and leader of the team that convinced NASA to build and launch the $692 million mission in 2009.

The artist's concept depicts Kepler-69c, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star like our sun, located about 2,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations.

But the telescope has now run out of the fuel needed for further operations.

A replacement: Several exoplanet-hunting missions are in the works, including the James Webb Space Telescope, now due to launch in 2021 after a series of delays.

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The spacecraft is responsible for finding more than 2,600 exoplanets circling distant stars in far-off parts of the galaxy.

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", Kepler's project scientist Jessie Dotson said. And recent glitches with the 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the 19-year-old Chandra X-Ray Observatory have signaled that those grand-scale telescopes are past their prime, mechanically if not scientifically.

The next-generation planet hunter space telescope for Nasa, TESS, launched in April and will survey far more cosmic terrain than Kepler. Both times, Kepler was able to transmit scientific data back to Earth and begin a new observing campaign.

Astronomers were dazzled by the planets it found, including Kepler-22b, probably a water world between the size of Earth and Neptune. "During that mission it has revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos".

"In the end, we didn't have a drop of fuel left for anything else", said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer. Rather, it served as a sensitive photometer, continuously measuring the brightness of stars in its wide field of view, on the lookout for the tell-tale dimming that occurs when a planet passes in front of its sun as viewed from Earth.

But while Borucki is fascinated by planets that could potentially host life, he's also struck by the sheer diversity of the more than 600 solar systems Kepler has studied.

"I think we were all extremely impressed with what it was doing for us", Borucki said of Kepler. "And the Kepler mission has paved the way for future exoplanet-studying missions".

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