NASA star-gazer satellite recovers from 144-hour network glitch

NASA Kepler recovers from “safe-mode” event that took it away from its mission of finding planets

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There was likely a pretty big sigh of relief at NASA's Ames Research Center this week as the group' star satellite Kepler, recovered from a glitch that took it offline for 144 hours.

According to NASA the glitch happened March 14, right after the spacecraft issued a network interface card (NIC) reset command to implement a computer program update. The NIC ties together the spacecraft's flight software, attitude determination, and its control subsystems and sensors. During the reset, the NIC sent invalid reaction wheel data to the flight software, which caused the spacecraft to enter safe mode, NASA stated.

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 Safe mode is a self-protective measure that the spacecraft takes when something unexpected occurs. During safe mode, the spacecraft points the solar panels directly at the sun and begins to slowly rotate along a sun-aligned axis, NASA said.  During recovery actions, NASA's Deep Space Network was used to downlink telemetry and began recovery of files to help engineers figure out what happened. The Kepler has since successfully reinitiated power to the primary SIB, confirmed its health and status, and also verified the new version of the NIC firmware had loaded correctly, and passed a health and safety check.

From NASA: " This safe mode orientation provides the vehicle with the maximum power and limits the buildup of momentum from solar wind. The spacecraft also swapped to its backup subsystem interface box (SIB), an electronics component that provides thermal and power distribution control to all spacecraft subsystems, and powered off the photometer, the instrument used to measure light intensity to detect planets. This is a normal procedure when the spacecraft enters safe mode. "

NASA said Kepler got back to business at 2:45 p.m PDT Sunday, March 20.

Kepler has been busy.  In January Kepler spotted its first rocky planet orbiting a sun similar to our own -- 560 light years from our solar system. While not in an area of space considered habitable, the rocky planet known as Kepler-10b and is never-the-less significant because it showcases the ability of Kepler to find and track such small exoplanetary movements.

In February, Kepler spotted what NASA called its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in what NASA considers to be the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface.  Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like  star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system.

Last August, Kepler discovered two Saturn-sized exoplanets crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star. At the time NASA said in addition to the two confirmed giant planets, Kepler spotted what appears to be a third, much smaller transit signature in the observations of the sun-like star designated Kepler-9, which is 2,000 light years away from Earth. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c.

The grand prize for Kepler of course would be finding a planet similar to Earth or those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet, according to NASA. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet, NASA stated.  The satellite has been peering at a patch of space, scanning over 150,000 stars since 2009.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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