NASA retires its planet hunter, the Kepler space telescope

James Marshall
October 31, 2018

Space agency officials declared the end of spacecraft operations today, nine and a half years after the car-sized probe was launched.

Signals that fuel was almost out were seen two weeks ago and scientists were able to get all the data from Kepler down to Earth before it completely ran dry. "We saw it drop from 90 psi [pounds per square inch] all the way down to 25 psi" over a few hours, said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center.

The far more advanced James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to lift off in 2021, should be able to reveal more about planets' mass, density and the makeup of their atmosphere - all clues to habitability. The probe detected distant worlds by watching for the telltale dimming of starlight as a planet passed over an alien sun's disk.

Kepler's nine-and-a-half-year flight was more than twice as long as originally planned. "That was an awesome diving catch", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters. Over the life of the mission, more than 100,000 of those stars were actively monitored by Kepler.

Four years into its mission, mechanical failures briefly halted observations.

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", Kepler's project scientist Jessie Dotson said. Launched in April, TESS will build on Kepler's planet-hunting legacy by searching for exoplanets around almost 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to Earth.

Kepler confirmed a trove of 2,681 planets outside our solar system. It's already identified some possible planets.

It showed us rocky worlds the size of Earth that, like Earth, might harbour life.

There's certain to be more to come: Much of the data downloaded from the spacecraft has yet to be fully analyzed.

"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. It is created to cover an area 400 times larger than Kepler could manage and is expected to find some 20,000 or more exoplanets during the course of its mission.

Continuing with Kepler's work is NASA's Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April to survey an area of the sky 400 times larger than that observed by its predecessor. TESS is created to survey about 200,000 stars across a wide stretch of sky in our celestial neighborhood, and identify prospects for further study.

NASA's most prolific planet-hunter is powering down after almost a decade of revealing the diversity of our galaxy's planets.

NASA's 11-year-old Dawn spacecraft is pretty much out of fuel after orbiting the asteroid Vesta as well as the dwarf planet Ceres.

The Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory experienced technical problems earlier this month that have since been fully repaired.

When it comes to the planet quest, the next big thing on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now due for launch in 2021 and may be able to look for signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets.

The $700 million mission even helped to uncover a year ago a solar system with eight planets, just like ours.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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