NASA bids goodbye to planet-hunting Kepler space telescope

James Marshall
November 2, 2018

"As NASA's first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond", said Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in a press release. "Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalising mysteries and possibilities among the stars".

This illustration made available by NASA shows the Kepler Space Telescope. The entire trove of scientific data that is collected has been transmitted back to Earth.

William Borucki, who like Kepler is now retired but was the mission's founding principal investigator, added: "When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn't know of a single planet outside our solar system".

Kepler showed us that "we live in a galaxy that's teeming with planets, and we're ready to take the next step to explore those planets", she said.

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

NASA/JPL-Caltech/BallNASA's Kepler space telescope, built in part by Ball Aerospace, before its launch in 2009.

However, a solution was found and in 2014 the "K2" element of the mission began, using solar pressure to help stabilize the pointing direction and observe new patches of the night sky. Originally only created to operate for around three and a half years, the spacecraft ultimately spent over nine and a half years in operation.

The telescope laid bare the diversity of planets that reside in our Milky Way galaxy, with findings indicating that distant star systems are populated with billions of planets, and even helped pinpoint the first moon known outside our solar system.

During its mission, Kepler found 2,681 confirmed planets and another 2,899 candidates, bringing its tally to 5,580. Many of those planets gave astronomers hope there could be life outside of Earth.

Scientists will continue to search for planets using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched earlier this year, the James Webb Space Telescope now scheduled for launch in 2021, and future spacecraft.

"The search for planets is the search for life", said Natalie Batalha, a longtime Kepler mission scientist now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a conference in 2017.

When launched, it was expected to last only six years, but it managed to outlive its designed lifespan by three years.

Kepler's Campaign 19 will work in conjunction with the first batch of TESS data.

Officials announced the Kepler Space Telescope's demise Tuesday.

For 9 years, a car-size telescope in space called Kepler has dutifully stared down more than half a million stars. JWST will take pictures in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes yet flawless for studying planets through the clouds of gas and dust in space that typically obscure distant worlds.

"That's the path Kepler has put us on", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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