NASA pondering bleak future of exoplanet-hunter

NASA Kepler space telescope in safe mode as engineers try to work magic

nasa kepler
NASA and a team of other experts will in the next few weeks evaluate options for recovering the crippled space telescope Kepler.

NASA's Kepler, which has been incredibly successful at spotting potentially habitable-zone planets since 2009, lost its control mechanism this month and has been rendered largely inactive. Specifically the spacecraft has four what are known as "reaction wheels" that control the craft's orientation in space. One of the wheels had already failed and this month another went bad. The telescope needs at least three operational wheels to work properly, NASA said.

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From NASA: "Over the coming weeks, an anomaly response team (ART) will evaluate wheel recovery options. The ART includes members from NASA Ames, Ball Aerospace, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UTC, the wheel manufacturer. This team has access to a broader reach of experts throughout NASA and industry, and will manage the wheel recovery efforts. The team will continue to analyze recent telemetry received from the spacecraft. This analysis, and any planned recovery actions, will take time, and will likely be on the order of weeks, possibly months. Any planned commanding will first be vetted on the spacecraft test bed to validate command operability."

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate told the Los Angeles Times last week that there might be a chance that, with a little bit of high-tech jiggling, engineers could get the wheel working again. This issue wasn't entirely unexpected, he said. "We have some history with these wheels by this manufacturer, that they have a limited lifetime. Kepler's not in a place where I can go up and rescue it. I wouldn't call Kepler down and out just yet."

One of the keys to Kepler's success is its ultra-precise photometer which measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star, NASA stated.

Kepler has identified some 2,700 candidate planets and 132 confirmed since its 2009 launch, NASA said. The space telescope's initial three-year mission was extended through 2016 just last year.

Should Kepler's mission be over it would be a blow to exoplanet research no doubt but tons of data that the telescope has been beaming back to Earth remains unexamined - some say there is more than two years' worth of data to look at. So it is likely Kepler's influence will be felt for a long time to come.

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