Published: Sat, November 03, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

NASA retires its planet hunter, the Kepler space telescope

NASA retires its planet hunter, the Kepler space telescope

NASA's legendary Kepler space telescope, which is responsible for the discovery of thousands of freakish and intriguing exoplanets, has officially run out of fuel.

The final commands have been sent, and the spacecraft will remain a safe distance from Earth to avoid colliding with our planet.

But the innovative spacecraft enjoyed an illustrious career, discovering as many as 2,600 planets and inspiring new fields of research, NASA said. Those systems range from Kepler-233, whose parent star may be merely 5 million to 10 million years old, to Kepler-444, whose planets may be more than twice Earth's 4.5 billion-year age.

William Borucki, principle investigator when the mission was launched, commented: "Now that we know planets are everywhere Kepler has set us on a new course that is full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy".

This artist's concept obtained October 30, 2018, courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle shows Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone.

There was a lot of malfunction that happened with steering and dwindling hydrazine fuel levels costing $600 million spacecraft which stayed in action nearly for nine years and with 19 observation campaigns which are longer than its original four-year mission. But the telescope has now run out of the fuel needed for further operations, leading to its retirement.

When it was launched in 2009, the Kepler space telescope combined cutting-edge techniques in measuring stellar brightness. In 2017, its mission at Ceres was extended again to study the dwarf planet from altitudes as low as 22 miles (35 kilometers) above Ceres' surface, with the main goal of understanding the evolution of Ceres and possibly active geology.

Several of them are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star - an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for the existence of water, which is considered a key ingredient for life. In that time, it has spotted thousands of exoplanet candidates and shown us that planets are rather ubiquitous, outnumbering stars in our galaxy. In speaking of Kepler's legacy, Hertz added, "Kepler data will continue to yield scientific discoveries for years to come". "It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a vehicle headlight, when the auto was 100 miles away", William Borucki, retired Kepler principal investigator said in a press conference today. This is the first star system found to have multiple transiting planets. The first data from TESS is already being sent to Earth and analyzed.

"While this may be a sad event, we are by no means unhappy with the performance of this marvellous machine", NASA project system engineer Charlie Sobeck said. Approval for this new phase of Kepler's life was given by NASA on May 16, 2014.

Kepler also experienced thrusters around the time when it began its 19th observation campaign in late August 2018 and then went into sleep mode, though was able to get it back online in September this year.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn't exist in our solar system, however.

Kepler's originally planned $640 million mission went far longer than anticipated, thanks in part to a spacecraft-saving fix that was made in 2013 when a crucial part of the probe's fine-pointing system went out of commission.

"Because of Kepler, what we think about our place in the universe has changed", Hertz said.

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