Kepler space telescope 'retired' by NASA

Pablo Tucker
November 2, 2018

"Now we know because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".

Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel. NASA realized Kepler was running out of fuel earlier this summer and chose to officially retire it.

Calling Kepler's mission "stunningly successful", TESS project scientist Padi Boyd told AP that the retired telescope has shown us that "we live in a galaxy that's teeming with planets". The data is still being analyzed, but it indicates that there are probably billions more exoplanets in our galaxy, some which may contain life. Several other exoplanet-hunting missions are expected to start in the future, including one using the James Webb Space Telescope, which will succeed both the Kepler and the Hubble Space Telescope. This enabled an extended mission for the spacecraft, dubbed K2, which lasted as long as the first mission and bumped Kepler's count of surveyed stars up to more than 500,000.

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz made the announcement during a teleconference today that included Bill Borucki, Kepler's principal investigator.

Kepler observed thousands of stars at once, looking for telltale dimming patterns caused by the passing of an orbiting planet.

By NASA Ames/ W Stenzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsNASA officially bid farewell to the Kepler space telescope on October 30 after it ran out of fuel. Scientists will spend "a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided".

Now that it has no fuel, the telescope can't correct its very specific orbit, so it is drifting farther and farther from our planet.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/BallNASA's Kepler space telescope, built in part by Ball Aerospace, before its launch in 2009.

However, a solution was found and in 2014 the "K2" element of the mission began, using solar pressure to help stabilize the pointing direction and observe new patches of the night sky.

Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries outside our solar system. It found inferno-like gas giants, rocky planets, planets orbiting binary stars, Earth-size planets, planets in the habitable zone capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, planets twice the size of Earth, the strangely flickering Tabby's Star, new details about the TRAPPIST-1 planetsand, in December, an eight-planet system.

While the data collection phase for Kepler has ended, STScI's Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes will continue to make all data from the Kepler observatory available in perpetuity. Much of what we know about exoplanets today comes from the Kepler mission.

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", Kepler Project Scientist Jessie Dotson said. This light would allow astronomers to take the spectrum of a planet and look for signs of habitability - and life. "I'm excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler's results".

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