NASA gives up fixing Kepler planet-hunting telescope

Aug 15, 2013 by Marcia Dunn

NASA called off all attempts to fix its crippled Kepler space telescope Thursday. But it's not quite ready to call it quits on the remarkable, robotic planet hunter.

Officials said they're looking at what science, if any, might be salvaged by using the broken spacecraft as is.

The $600 million Kepler mission has been in trouble since May, unable to point with precision at faraway stars in its quest for other potential Earths. That's when a critical second wheel failed on the spacecraft. The first of four gyroscope wheels broke in 2012. At least three are needed for precise pointing.

Since it rocketed into space in 2009, Kepler has confirmed 135 exoplanets—. It's also identified more than 3,500 candidate planets.

NASA expects to know by year's end whether the mission is salvageable. Kepler is already on an extended quest; its prime, 3½-year mission ended in November.

The spacecraft is 51 million miles (82 million kilometers) from Earth, orbiting the sun.

If nothing else, are expected from data collected over the past four years.

"This is not the last you'll hear from Kepler," promised Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics director.

"Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets, including several super-Earths in the ," said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who heads NASA's office.

The habitable zone is the distance between a star and planet in which temperatures would permit and, possibly, life.

"Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon," Grunsfeld said in a news release.

Engineers tried without success, over hundreds of hours, to revive the two disabled wheels. The spacecraft remains stable, with thrusters controlling its pointing with as little fuel as possible.

The costs and benefits of the remainder of this mission will be analyzed; results from a pair of studies are expected this autumn, with decisions coming afterward.

Kepler's principal investigator, William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said no one knew at the beginning of Kepler's mission whether Earth-size planets were rare and whether Earthlings might be alone.

"Now at the completion of Kepler observations, we know our galaxy is filled to the brim with planets," Borucki said at a news conference. A large portion of these planets are small like Earth, not gas giants like Jupiter, he noted.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of more are expected from Kepler findings, Borucki said. He said it would take another three years to analyze the remaining data.

"We literally expect ... the most exciting discoveries are to come in the next few years as we search through all this data," he said.

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rug
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 15, 2013
Ah Kepler, sorry to see you go but you've done amazing things and I'm sure you will be remembered for it.
Matthewwa25
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2013
Time to send up a couple more replacements ;)
GSwift7
3 / 5 (4) Aug 16, 2013
Time to send up a couple more replacements ;)


It would be interesting to send up an updated version with a longer mission plan and check a completely different patch of sky, to see if the statistics hold true in other regions. Right now, we're just assuming that the region surveyed by Kepler is typical.

It would really be nice to have a good catalogue of types of planets around types of stars, to get a better idea of what to expect around stars we haven't surveyed in detail yet. Kepler just looked at a postage stamp sized bit of sky.

The only instrument on Kepler is a photometer, but it's one hell of a photometer. I'm sure someone has a task that could be performed with that instrument, even without exact pointing. Some researchers might get lucky and inherit a used spacecraft. However, unless that lucky person is able to pay for operating costs, NASA should just pull the plug. Use up the remaining fuel to set up an interesting death orbit and move on to other business.
yyz
3 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2013
"I'm sure someone has a task that could be performed with that instrument, even without exact pointing."

There have been a few proposals, like this one recently posted on arXiv for an extended Kepler mission: http://arxiv.org/...2252.pdf

It'll be interesting to see whether any of these proposals are implemented though. Tight budgets and all.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2013
Bring 'Dawn' back here and refuel her and re-equip her for a robotic repair mission to Kepler. Her superior electric propulsion system will run circles around the anachronistic monopoly demanded petrochem fueled junk fielded for our most impotent (mis-spelling intended) space missions today. Catching Kepler will be easy for Dawn.
Q-Star
1 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2013
Bring 'Dawn' back here and refuel her and re-equip her for a robotic repair mission to Kepler. Her superior electric propulsion system will run circles around the anachronistic monopoly demanded petrochem fueled junk fielded for our most impotent (mis-spelling intended) space missions today. Catching Kepler will be easy for Dawn.


It would be much cheaper to just build a new & better "Kepler II" than to build another Dawn and task it for recovering Kepler.
baudrunner
1.4 / 5 (5) Aug 17, 2013
Kepler could just make a mission out of concentrating its survey to the area and field of view it is currently able to point to and focus at, or run out of fuel repositioning it with its stabilizer thrusters. I don't know that with the types of instruments on board it would even be worthwhile doing an extended time exposure, but I figure that what works for optical observatories should work for them as well. If Kepler's not finished yet, as they suggest, then it's almost as good as working.
Lurker2358
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 18, 2013
Well, if they'd make more than one of each design, they'd save money and have back-ups. Instead NASA just makes attempts at a "silver bullet" approach to exploration.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (4) Aug 18, 2013
Won't those alien civilizations be delighted to know that they have been discovered by a nation that routinely explodes their own citizens in order to start wars to enrich their banking masters?
GSwift7
3 / 5 (2) Aug 19, 2013
Well, if they'd make more than one of each design, they'd save money and have back-ups. Instead NASA just makes attempts at a "silver bullet" approach to exploration


The flip side of that is that you end up having two spacecraft that do the same thing, without advancing the technology. The space shuttle is a good example of what you're talking about. They made a bunch of the same thing, and by the time the last ones were operational they were hopelessly obsolete. They ended up spending tons of money trying to update them, but it was a lost cause. The other problem with building multiple copies of the same thing is that if there's a problem with the design, you've just repeated it (again, the space shuttle is a good example).

One of NASA's purposes is to design new systems, which are then used by others. They take the risks and figure out the design challenges, which enables private and government agencies to use them without doing the R&D themselves. Universities do this too.