Tech UPTechnologyThe Kepler space telescope has died

The Kepler space telescope has died

The Kepler Kepler Space Telescope will no longer be able to search for any more planets orbiting other stars, as NASA has announced that it has run out of fuel. Thus ends a mission of 9 and a half years that will conclude with a safe orbit far from Earth, to rest for all eternity in the depths of space.

“Due to fuel depletion, the Kepler spacecraft has reached the end of its useful life,” said Charlie Sobeck, a project systems engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “While this is a sad event, it does not mean that we are unhappy with this extraordinary machine.”

The great planet hunter

Kepler’s discoveries have forever changed what we knew about planets in other solar systems. Before the spacecraft was launched in 2009, only about 350 exoplanets were known to exist in the galaxy, and almost all of them were Jupiter-sized or larger.

We now know that there are more than 3,800 known exoplanets, and Kepler was responsible for discovering 2,720 of them. The telescope found planets in all shapes, sizes and configurations: seven planets orbiting a star, planets orbiting at sinuous angles, planets with two suns, planets more than twice as old as Earth …

“These planets formed early in the formation of our galaxy,” says astronomer William Borucki, who was Kepler’s principal investigator until he retired in 2015. “Imagine what life would be like on such planets.”

Additionally, astronomers have used Kepler’s exoplanet walkthrough to predict that each of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way should have, on average, at least one planet. And billions of those features could make them life-friendly.

Planets, planets everywhere

From 2009 to the end of 2017, Kepler had discovered more than 2,500 planets, roughly 70% of all known exoplanets . Known exoplanets vary in sizes, from those comparable to Earth to the sizes of Neptune or Jupiter or even larger.

Not Kepler’s first ‘death’

Kepler was pronounced dead on an earlier occasion; It was in 2013 when the telescope lost the use of a second of its four reaction wheels, which helped keep the telescope constantly pointing at the same patch of the sky. The mission appeared to be over, but the engineers managed to revive the telescope in a new observation mode, called K2, which used the pressure of sunlight on Kepler’s solar panels to keep it pointed directly at the target. “He
always did everything we asked for, and sometimes more, ” says astronomer Jessie Dotson, a Kepler project scientist at NASA.

This is all friends

Kepler’s official end came two weeks ago, when the telescope’s fuel pressure dropped by 75% in a matter of hours. Before shutting down, Kepler transmitted all the remaining data to Earth. “In the end, we didn’t have a drop of fuel left,” says Sobeck.

The ship’s legacy lives on. The next planet-searching telescope, TESS, was launched in April and has already detected some exoplanets.

For its final acts, the Kepler team will remotely turn off the telescope’s radio transmitters to avoid contaminating air waves and turn off the protection systems that would turn those transmitters back on.

Kepler won’t be the last exoplanet explorer, but it was NASA’s first, and it gave the world a new way of looking at our place in the universe. Fortunately, just as biologists continue to discover new species by examining samples already in museum collections, the data already collected by Kepler could keep astronomers busy for many years.

Reference: NASA. NASA retires Kepler space telescope, passes planet-hunting torch. October 30, 2018.

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