Published: Fri, November 02, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

NASA bids goodbye to planet-hunting Kepler space telescope

NASA bids goodbye to planet-hunting Kepler space telescope

NASA announced the termination of the mission of the Kepler space Observatory, almost 10 years after its launch. The deep space mission's end is not unexpected, as low fuel levels had been noted in July. During the near-decade of its life, Kepler found evidence of more than 2,600 planets located beyond our solar system. "Now we know there are billions of planets that are rocky like the Earth and are orbiting their stars in the habitable zone, or the Goldilocks zone, where their temperatures might be conducive to water on the surface". It is a possible "water world" the size of Earth perhaps covered with oceans and with a water-based atmosphere.

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be retired, following a nine-and-a-half-year mission in search of planets that might harbour life beyond our solar system.

"We have shown that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy", Borucki said.

Kepler's discoveries have shed a new light on mankind's place in the Universe.

The telescope had been in operation for almost ten years after being launched into space in 2009.

Though Kepler will no longer collect any more data, there's still plenty of images for NASA and other scientists to examine.

"When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn't know of a single planet outside our solar system", said William Borucki, retired Kepler principal investigator. "Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that's full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy".

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", according to Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at the Ames Research Center.

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

Launched atop a Delta 2 rocket on March 14, 2009, Kepler was boosted into an orbit around the sun, trailing the Earth and aiming its 95-megapixel camera at a patch of sky the size of an out-stretched hand near the constellation Cygnus that contains more than 4.5 million detectable stars.

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The resurrected mission became known as K2 and yielded 350 confirmed exoplanets.

NASA's most prolific planet-hunter is powering down after almost a decade of revealing the diversity of our galaxy's planets. Kepler watched the very beginning of exploding stars, or supernovae, to gain unprecedented insight about stars and witnessed the death of a solar system.

And those discoveries have helped shape future missions.

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is already in space and embarking on its own planetary hunt using a similar method to Kepler, keeping an eye on dips in starlight as planets move between the satellite and its host star.

TESS builds on Kepler's foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth.

Ms Dotson said commented: "Kepler's exoplanet legacy is absolutely blockbuster".

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 probe detected distant worlds by watching for the telltale dimming of starlight as a planet passed over an alien sun's disk.

Paul Hertz, NASA astrophysics division director said, "Now, because of Kepler, what we think about the universe has changed, Kepler opened the gate for the exploration of the cosmos".

The Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations. "I'm excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come".

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