RIP Kepler: NASA Retires Planet-Hunting Space Telescope

Gwen Vasquez
November 2, 2018

NASA is retiring its Kepler space telescope because it's run out of fuel after almost a decade spent hunting several thousand planets beyond our solar system.

Launched in March 2009, the space observatory (named after astronomer Johannes Kepler) was created to assess some 150,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus.

The Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations.

NASA's Kepler planet-hunting telescope now belongs to the ages, with its fuel completely spent and its instruments shut down - but the planet quest continues, thanks to a treasure trove of downloaded data as well as a new generation of robotic planet-hunters.

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", said Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Centre in California's Silicon Valley. Read the original article. "It hit me like a sledgehammer in the chest when Kepler showed us that there really, really are planets out there of all different kinds".

Kepler's time on orbit has seen the spacecraft weather the hostile environment of space which has taken its toll on the spacecraft.

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.

Its positioning system broke down in 2013, though scientists found a way to keep it operational.

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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.

"Now, because of Kepler, what we think about the universe has changed", NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz told the Verge. Approval for this new phase of Kepler's life was given by NASA on May 16, 2014.

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

By studying slight changes in the "light curve" produced by planetary transits - comparable to watching a flea creep across a car's headlight at a distance of 100 miles - and the timing of repeated cycles, computer analysis could tease out potential Earth-like worlds in habitable-zone orbits. So now it's time to bid Goodbye to Kepler. Originally positioned to stare continuously at 150,000 stars in one star-studded patch of the sky in the constellation Cygnus, Kepler took the first survey of planets in our galaxy and became the agency's first mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

What Kepler found was that planets around other stars are commonplace.

"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. It is a possible "water world" the size of Earth perhaps covered with oceans and with a water-based atmosphere.

Kepler discovered thousands of planets, many of them similar in size to the Earth (far right), though how they might appear is still a matter of speculation. At present, there are just shy of 4,000 known worlds around other stars, and Kepler is responsible for discovering more than half of them.

"Around every star in the galaxy, we're confident now that there's probably at least one planet - so more planets than stars without a doubt and that's something that Kepler has shown us", he said. "How do we set these systems up so that we get that extremely valuable data that we get even though we have to look for very long periods of time at each of these objects?"

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