Kepler spacecraft's planet-hunting days may be numbered (Update)

May 15, 2013
This file artist's rendering provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope. The Kepler spacecraft lost the second of four wheels that control the telescope's orientation in space, NASA said Wednesday, May 15, 2013. If engineers can't find a fix, the failure means Kepler won't be able to look for exoplanets—planets outside our solar system anymore. (AP Photo/NASA, File)

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope is broken, potentially jeopardizing the search for other worlds where life could exist outside our solar system.

If engineers can't find a fix, the failure could mean an end to the $600 million mission's search, although the space agency wasn't ready to call it quits Wednesday. The telescope has discovered scores of planets but only two so far are the best candidates for habitable planets.

"I wouldn't call Kepler down-and-out just yet," said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld.

NASA said the spacecraft lost the second of four wheels that control its orientation in space. With only two working wheels left, it can't point at stars with the same precision.

In orbit around the sun, 40 million miles (65 million kilometers) from Earth, Kepler is too far away to send astronauts on a repair mission like the way Grunsfeld and others fixed a mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope. Over the next several weeks, engineers on the ground will try to restart Kepler's faulty wheel or find a workaround. The telescope could be used for other purposes even if it can no longer track down planets.

Kepler was launched in 2009 in search of Earth-like planets. So far, it has confirmed 132 planets and spotted more than 2,700 potential ones. Its mission was supposed to be over by now, but last year, NASA agreed to keep Kepler running through 2016 at a cost of about $20 million a year.

Just last month, Kepler scientists announced the discovery of a distant duo that seems like ideal places for some sort of life to flourish. The other planets found by Kepler haven't fit all the criteria that would make them right for life of any kind—from microbes to man.

While ground telescopes can hunt for planets outside our solar system, Kepler is much more advanced and is the first space mission dedicated to that goal.

For the past four years, Kepler has focused its telescope on a faraway patch of the Milky Way hosting more than 150,000 stars, recording slight dips in brightness—a sign of a planet passing in front of the star.

Now "we can't point where we need to point. We can't gather data," deputy project manager Charles Sobeck told The Associated Press.

Scientists said there's a backlog of data that they still need to analyze even if Kepler stopped looking for planets.

"I think the most interesting, exciting discoveries are coming in the next two years. The mission is not over," said chief scientist William Borucki at the NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California, which manages the mission.

Scientists who have no role in the Kepler mission mourned the news. They said the latest loss means the spacecraft may not be able to determine how many Earth-size planets are in the "Goldilocks zone" where it's not too hot or too cold for water to exist in liquid form on the surface. And while they praised the data collected by Kepler so far, they said several more years of observations are needed to nail down that number.

"This is one of the saddest days in my life. A crippled Kepler may be able to do other things, but it cannot do the one thing it was designed to do," Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who is not part of the Kepler team, said in an email.

In 2017, NASA plans to launch TESS—Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite—designed to search for planets around nearby stars.

Explore further: Astrophysicist's passion for exotic science inspired 'Interstellar'

More information: Kepler: kepler.nasa.gov

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MaiioBihzon
2.2 / 5 (36) May 15, 2013
Are they kidding?

A $600 million space telescope changing our view of the Universe and the place of planets ~ and possibly life ~ within it. Stranded in space, unable to complete its mission.

Because we can't scrounge up enough money, commitment, and talent to replace our lost Space Shuttle capability? Because we can't fly astronauts up to repair it, install new hardware, patch in a fix? One of the best justifications for manned spaceflight are situations exactly like this: Expensive, invaluable equipment in orbit requiring a human touch.

Am almost speechless with anguish and disgust. This is no way to run a space program.
VendicarE
3.1 / 5 (14) May 15, 2013
America is bankrupt.

Remember... The TeaPublicans view NASA as Unconstitutional and a colossal waste of money.

The Republicans have been working to destroy NASA for decades.

Consider the words of Jeb Bush....

"We must manufacture an (economic) crisis in order to assure that there are no alternatives to a smaller government." - Impris magazine 1996

Starve the beast of big government though fiscal bankruptcy has been the Republican Operating plan for the last 40 years.

axemaster
2.8 / 5 (13) May 15, 2013
I couldn't agree with you more MaiioBihzon. In all honesty, I don't have much hope that NASA will get a new human spaceflight vehicle. The government in the USA is too corrupt, and there are many individuals who would love to see space handed over to large corporations.
MaiioBihzon
2.4 / 5 (28) May 15, 2013
Sounds like what is happening right now in both the US and EU. Starvation economics. Greece, Spain ~ "austerity" that guts the infrastructure and hamstrings society as it tries to get back on its feet. When you're sick or wounded, you need medicine, care, time to recover, therapy, not an addition to the load of stress and work imposed on your body. You need resources, not starvation.

History swings from one end of a cycle to the other. The rise of socialism and Communism marked a swing in one direction, a rebellion against aristocracies, elites and the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few through the mechanism of capitalism. Now that the Cold War has been over for a generation, we have seen a swing far out into the other direction. We are lost in a post-modern, globalized society where capitalism has become the victim of its own success, giving way to corporatism. The corporatocracy will rule for the foreseeable future.

History is cyclical.
MaiioBihzon
2.3 / 5 (23) May 15, 2013
Axemaster, agreed that things are grim. But there will be a new vehicle.

Entrepreneurs like Musk and Branson are now in the game. NASA must now either: (1) accept that commercial operations will assume the role of providing manned spaceflight capability; (2) attempt to compete with commercial interests by developing its own vehicle; (3) accept the inevitability of commercial manned spacecraft while also continuing to offer official government-sanctioned manned space transportation.

My guess is that it will be (3). Commercial vehicles are already being prepared for flight, while NASA, struggling with an anemic budget, is lamely attempting to get back in the game with a vehicle of its own. Years from now, NASA will eventually succeed. But the only way NASA can move ahead of its commercial rivals will be to go forward with its fusion rocket plans. No one in the commercial sector is anywhere near anything like that yet.

http://www.nasa.g...ugh.html
Requiem
1.6 / 5 (10) May 15, 2013
I am getting REALLY tired of reading about reaction wheels failing. What the hell. What happened? Who is making these things, is there some company that needs to be held accountable for all of these recent blunders? I'm pretty sure we've been using reaction wheels for many decades and I've read about tons of failures for the first time just in the last few years.

Why this mission? Just when things were about to start getting interesting, if you actually understand how it works. I'm pretty angry over this one.

And to all the people saying we should just fly on out there, that wouldn't be practical even if we did have the shuttles. It's too far away.
Neinsense99
2.7 / 5 (14) May 15, 2013
Walmart parts department?
Requiem
2.1 / 5 (7) May 15, 2013
It was Ball Aerospace, at least Kepler was. I don't have the time or will to go find out who made all of the other recently failed reaction wheels right at this moment.
El_Nose
3 / 5 (13) May 15, 2013
@MaijoBihzon

I gave your first post a 1

There could never be a shuttle mission to Kepler. It is in a heliocentric orbit -- meaning it is orbiting the Sun -- not the Earth -- now the orbit does happen to be Earth trailing -- but there is no going out to where the Kepler telescope is and coming home alive.

And NASA has accepted that manned space flights will be taken over by commercial industries. Where have you been? NASA's purpose is to investigate new propulsion systems and space science that require huge research budgets that can only come from the federal government.

Focus more on facts than propaganda ... or just go back under your bridge .. darned dirty trolls
EyeNStein
1.9 / 5 (12) May 15, 2013
As Kepler had 4 reaction wheels (one being a spare) at least one of them must be steerable to function on x, y or z axis as required? I hope that the two remaining can be juggled to provide third axis rotation when required. Or they could work out an algorithm to use gyroscopic precession for the third axis?
MaiioBihzon
2.1 / 5 (22) May 15, 2013
That emotional response to Kepler's troubles is no one's fault but my own. I accept that a Shuttle mission could not remedy this particular situation.

As for the rest...

Am well aware that NASA has accepted that SOME manned spaceflight will be handed over to commercial entities. But NASA has not been content to hand all the manned spaceflight operations over to others. Otherwise, there would not be an Orion spacecraft or Space Launch System in the works.

Am also aware of NASA's propulsion work ~ you failed to note the link?

So NASA is accepting the inevitability of a commercial presence in manned spaceflight, while also keeping its own hand in the game.

I am neither interested in propaganda nor in personal attacks, which seem to be your department. Nor am I a troll; instead, I am someone who grew up with the dream of manned spaceflight who is also tired of seeing all the setbacks and the space program put on the back burner.

Go refill your flamethrower now, it's getting low.
grondilu
5 / 5 (8) May 15, 2013
Are they kidding?

A $600 million space telescope changing our view of the Universe and the place of planets ~ and possibly life ~ within it. Stranded in space, unable to complete its mission.

Because we can't scrounge up enough money, commitment, and talent to replace our lost Space Shuttle capability? Because we can't fly astronauts up to repair it, install new hardware, patch in a fix? One of the best justifications for manned spaceflight are situations exactly like this: Expensive, invaluable equipment in orbit requiring a human touch.


I bet it would be cheaper to just send an other telescope.
Maggnus
4.5 / 5 (16) May 15, 2013
Kepler's mission was for 3.5 years, which it has accomplished. Anything beyond that was bonus time. There are terabytes of data still to be analyzed, so it's legacy is safe.

It is truly too bad this great mission faces an end due to such a small but critical part.
MaiioBihzon
2.8 / 5 (25) May 15, 2013
Anything beyond that [3.5 years] was bonus time...it's legacy is safe.

It is truly too bad this great mission faces an end due to such a small but critical part.


Well said. Mission more than completed. The James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments will have to carry the ball forward. The only problem in all that? Ball Aerospace is also responsible for the James Webb. :-|
philw1776
4.1 / 5 (17) May 15, 2013
Folks ranting need to know that Kepler is in solar orbit, not Earth orbit. The shuttle could never have reached it. Also, there was a spare reaction wheel; it too had failed. 3 are needed to orient the craft PRECISELY on 3 axes. Mechanical spinning parts have finite lifetimes and wear out. Kepler had already exceeded its expected design lifetime and was into an extended mission having already accomplished its primary mission. There are reams of data still to be analyzed and discoveries to be made.

The real rants need to focus on what mission besides TESS should follow that is design capable of advancing the state of exoplanet knowledge by a similar huge leap as Kepler did. Kudos to the Kepler team for an excellent job.
MaiioBihzon
2.1 / 5 (21) May 15, 2013
@ Philw1776:

Your criticism re solar orbit was addressed above, where I wrote:

"That emotional response to Kepler's troubles is no one's fault but my own. I accept that a Shuttle mission could not remedy this particular situation."

Maggnus has pointed out Kepler has gone well beyond its 3.5-year mission.

Beyond that, agree that the main concern now is on what missions shall follow and build on Kepler's success.
VendicarE
1 / 5 (7) May 16, 2013
James Webb will never fly. Republicans will see to it that it is cancelled. It will be the first thing cancelled when they regain power in 3 years.

"The James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments will have to carry the ball forward" - Mailo
YawningDog
2.3 / 5 (3) May 16, 2013


I believe a consortium of billionaires is now putting together a company for the avowed purpose of mining the heavens..The lust for wealth trumps scientific inquiry.
VendicarE
1 / 5 (3) May 16, 2013
"I believe a consortium of billionaires" - DogTard

Do you also believe in the tooth fairy?
Skepticus_Rex
3.9 / 5 (7) May 16, 2013
Folks, the mission was designed to be a four year mission.

http://kepler.nas...cecraft/

It did its job and did it well. March 9, 2009 - May 14, 2013. It's been more than 4 years and its now broken. Time for a new mission. No need for politics or nation-bashing to be brought into the picture. They only built it to last for a four-year mission in the first place, and it completed that mission successfully.
Pkunk_
1 / 5 (2) May 16, 2013
They could send the SLS Rocket to fix Kepler , but it would probably cost less to just build another Kepler. IMO , the mission was a resounding success and it found undisputed evidence of planets around multiple stars.
Now it's probably better to to replace Kepler with Terrestrial Planet Finder or a Distributed Orbital Telescope to search for planets near our Solar System. Once the secret to fusion is unlocked it wont be long before we can start sending probes to nearby stars , and it will help to find habitable planets in nearby systems.
El_Nose
3 / 5 (6) May 16, 2013
NASA and the US government have matured. There is no need to keep secret rocket science. Allowing commercial entities to take over space transportation allow for competing factors that will bring down the overall cost of getting into space. Government cannot do that. NASA is not looking to create its own vehicle to get back in the game -- it is looking to create a new heavy lift vehicle that will once again change the game. This is about developing technology.

This is not a competition. There can and could never be a competition. NASA would win hands down. It has a government budget. It gets money for just existing -- no company can replicate that. The budget for NASA is in the billions per year.. around 13 billion or 1% of the US federal budget
EyeNStein
1.9 / 5 (9) May 16, 2013
Kepler is in a safe mode keeping in touch with Nasa.
Nasa are currently looking at a hybrid rocket thruster and reaction wheel steering mode.
With "half the PHD's on the planet" working on it and a good computer simulation I'd be surprised if they didn't extend the useful life of Kepler.
EyeNStein
1.8 / 5 (10) May 16, 2013
Without cold fusion and reactionless drives .

We could go to Mars and beyond if we wanted to, and without the help of the fringe/implausible physics you mention. We just have too many other things to spend our cash (or strictly Chinese borrowed cash) on at present.
Its just not 1969 any more.
EyeNStein
1.8 / 5 (10) May 16, 2013
The analysis and (hopefully) solution to this failure could have important benefits or consequences for the future JWST mission.
Fleetfoot
5 / 5 (3) May 16, 2013
The successor is TESS as is covered in the article and some previous comments. JWST is a very different telescope designed to study the era of the first galaxies and the last of the Pop III stars at redshifts up to 15 (originally up to 25). It was never intended to hunt for planets.
EyeNStein
1.4 / 5 (9) May 16, 2013
TESS isn't a Ball Aerospace project (as Kepler is) and MIT are looking after it.
JWST, on the other hand, is a Ball Aerospace project with NASA looking after it. This second reaction wheel failure could be just the kick in the pants they need to seriously review that part of the JWST while they still can.
It would be awful if JWST followed the embarrassing steps of Hubble and launched with a flaw they could have fixed on the ground.
EverythingsJustATheory
5 / 5 (1) May 16, 2013
We just have too many other things to spend our cash (or strictly Chinese borrowed cash) on at present.


Sorry to burst your bubble, but China only owns approximately 7% of our debt, that's all. Japan owns almost as much as China. Foreign countries hold less than 1/3 of the debt. Most is held by the public, government agencies, pension funds, or trust funds, such as SS.

"Borrow from ourselves" would be a more accurate statement.
EyeNStein
2.1 / 5 (11) May 16, 2013


"Borrow from ourselves" would be a more accurate statement.

I stand corrected. Though if NASA wanted to spend 4% of the Fed budget for rapid development, as they did in the 60's it wouldn't get anyone's money.
Though the DOD seem to keep getting their money OK.(minus the Fiscal cliff cut).
El_Nose
2 / 5 (4) May 16, 2013
I don;t know about you all but -- I for one wish NASA would add three extra sets of gyros onto the JWST just in case... seems like the fourth time this has been an issue with a telescope in MY recent memory -- or am I thinking about Hubble ?? anyway it couldn;t hurt

Yes I know the design is done and there is no adding on at this point

-- and I really wish people would stop with this 'cold fusion' will get us to the stars hype -- it just means that you don't understand the difference between fusion and theoretical 'cold fusion'

If we had a working fusion reactor -- it would provide a lot of energy -- but while it would have to be built in space -- and a space ship might need a couple -- one thing I like about the engineering section in the new Star Trek movies is that it looks like a energy plant.

Cold fusion promises energy but NO WHERE near the density needed to move people through space. IF it works -- you will power a house... MAYBE. Cause they give energy but ARE REALLY BIG
Fleetfoot
3.7 / 5 (3) May 16, 2013
and I really wish people would stop with this 'cold fusion' will get us to the stars hype -- it just means that you don't understand the difference between fusion and theoretical 'cold fusion'


Problem is, there is no 'theoretical cold fusion', there is no theory that suggests it can exist at all. All there is was a claim by some experimenters to have found an excess of energy in an experiment which they couldn't account for. Checks for neutrons which would be released in any fusion process found none whatsoever, the effect turned out to be chemical.

Of course that won't stop the snake-oil cranks harping on about it.
EyeNStein
1.5 / 5 (10) May 16, 2013
Cold Fuson

This has NOTHING to do with Kepler but I still harbour a hope that a controlled focus fusion could be achieved at some point in the future.
The maths encourages the possibility: A potential barrier of the order of 100KeV prevents Deuterium and Tritium approaching each other; but you get a massive 18MeV out when they do. So you only need around 1 in 180 nucleus hits for energy breakeven. Of course the nuclear cross section is very small and difficult to hit. (near impossible with current technology) But think of it as two co-axially opposed electron microscopes trying to focus on and hit the others microscopes beam. Of course its too hard to do now, and the beams are deuterons and tritions not electrons. But if we start now it could be ready in 50 years (sic).
(Thank you for reading.)
Fleetfoot
not rated yet May 17, 2013
Of course the nuclear cross section is very small and difficult to hit. (near impossible with current technology) But think of it as two co-axially opposed electron microscopes trying to focus on and hit the others microscopes beam.


Of course that's exactly what is done at the LHC, but it struggles to run other than in the summer because the cost of the electricity needed to generate an impact is the dominant part of their budget and they get a good deal running at times of low consumption.

Besides, that's hot fusion anyway. How do does theory predict you could get fusion at energies less than 100 eV say?
MaiioBihzon
2.1 / 5 (19) May 17, 2013
There can and could never be a competition. NASA would win hands down. It has a government budget. It gets money for just existing -- no company can replicate that. The budget for NASA is in the billions per year.. around 13 billion or 1% of the US federal budget


NASA's budget is actually half that percentage, receiving about 0.5% of the federal budget.

Further, NASA's resources are devoted to a wide variety of projects, and the return on investment in manned spaceflight often pales beside what is generated by the unmanned probes it has flown. Because manned spaceflight is so expensive and NASA's budget is spread thin enough as it is, there will be a gap of a decade describing the lapse in NASA's manned spaceflight capability between the retirement of the Shuttle and the first Orion manned mission.

It truly is not a competition, which is why NASA, unable to compete, has ceded manned spaceflight -- which NASA now cannot do -- to commercial entities.
EyeNStein
1.7 / 5 (10) May 17, 2013
@Fleetfoot: Most of the 7TeV LHC beam input energy is lost as cyclotron radiation. 7TeV is way above the 100KeV proton potential barrier easily reachable by common electron microscopes and required for fusion. The LHC also doesn't attempt to focus to 50 picometres as a STEM can with corrected optics. However this is still around 5000x too defocused to nail a small cooled nucleus: So as I said, it will be a many years before anyone builds a proton microscope. But if we could do it a 100kV accelerator is far more compact than a 5,000 ton torus or a factory full of lasers. But accurately and reliably colliding two probabilistic quantum objects on the femtometre scale may require some kind of quantum physics breakthrough so don't hold your breath!

The only way to achieve any fusion at 100eV would be by some form of quantum tunnelling. Which would be what the cold fusion folk would be hoping for.
maxb500_live_nl
1 / 5 (3) May 19, 2013
I don`t know why everybody is complaining about the failure of NASA`s Kepler spacecraft. This very year Europe will launch their GAIA Spacecraft that will start building a super precise 3D map of the 1 Billion nearest stars to earth.

This galaxy map will be so precise that many of these 1 billion stars should reveal their planets. That means possible tens of thousands (or far more) of planets will be discovered completely blowing Kepler back to the stone age. Win, Win for us Space/Astronomy Fans.

But yes it will take some years before the GAIA mission will result in the first detections. But by 2016/17 expect a truck load and increasing truck loads of new planets. We all have to be patient. And don`t forget Kepler has a lot of Data not yet researched. Also we have the European HARPS instrument that has confirmed just as many planets as Kepler (132). But HARPS being on earth will continue this mission and Europe is working on a new 2016 HARPS successor that is FAR more powerful.
Neinsense99
2.6 / 5 (10) May 27, 2013
The mathematics that supported the austerity approach have been found to not only be flawed, but the research appears to have been skewed.
MaiioBihzon
2.3 / 5 (12) Jul 08, 2013
Update:

Attempt to regain use of a failed reaction wheel to begin later this month. See link for more:

http://www.space....ans.html

Aside to Neinsense99: You are very correct.

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