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As Kepler Running ‘low’ On Fuel Scientists At NASA Prepares To Download Data

In 2013, Kepler's primary mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke, rendering it unable to hold its gaze steady at the original field of view.

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NASA said no response has been received from the rover as of July 18. Flickr
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Scientists at NASA are preparing to download the latest bit of data stored in its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope as the spacecraft is now running “very low” on fuel.

The US space agency has placed the spacecraft in a no-fuel-use safe mode to save the remaining fuel so that data extraction can be completed, NASA said on Friday.

On August 2, the Kepler team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and manoeuvre the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data.

Once the data has been downloaded, the expectation is to start observations for the next campaign with any remaining fuel.

But as of now, returning the data back to Earth is the “highest priority” for the remaining fuel.

Since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, staring at a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer it previously studied in 2015.

The data from this second look will provide astronomers with an opportunity to confirm previous exoplanet candidates and discover new ones.

To bring the data home, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and transmit the data during its allotted Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in early August.

Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode.

If the manoeuvre and download are successful, the team will begin its 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the remaining fuel, NASA said, adding that it will provide an update after the scheduled download.

The US space agency has been monitoring the Kepler spacecraft closely for signs of low fuel for quite some time now, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets.

Among other findings, recently 24 new planet discoveries were made using data from the 10th observation campaign, adding to the spacecraft’s growing bounty of 2,650 confirmed planets.

The Kepler space telescope, which is now 94 million miles away from Earth, has survived many potential knock-outs during its nine years in flight, from mechanical failures to being blasted by cosmic rays.

planet-hunting Kepler space telescope
planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. Flickr

The spacecraft was given a new lease on life by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, like a kayak steering into the current.

Reborn as “K2,” this extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months in what scientists refer to as a “campaign.”

Initially, the Kepler team estimated that the K2 mission could conduct 10 campaigns with the remaining fuel.

It turns out scientists were overly conservative in their estimate. The mission has already completed 17 campaigns, and since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign.

But scientists now know that its life is coming to end very soon.

NASA in April launched another planet-hunting spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess).

Also read: NASA’s Kepler Discovers Nearly 100 New Exoplanets

After the Kepler space telescope, Tess is the second spacecraft which will search for planets outside our solar system, including those that could support life. (IANS)

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NASA: No contact Made With Storm-Hit Mars Rover, Till Now

Because Opportunity runs on solar energy, scientists had to suspend science activities to preserve the rover's batteries.

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NASA said no response has been received from the rover as of July 18. Flickr

 NASA is yet to make contact with its Mars Opportunity Rover ever since a massive storm started on the Red Planet in June.

Based on the longevity of a 2001 global storm, NASA scientists estimate it may be September before the haze has cleared enough for Opportunity to power up and call home, the US space agency said this week.

Scientists first observed a smaller-scale dust storm on May 30. By June 20, it had gone global.

For the Opportunity rover, that meant a sudden drop in visibility from a clear, sunny day to that of an overcast one.

Because Opportunity runs on solar energy, scientists had to suspend science activities to preserve the rover’s batteries.

NASA said no response has been received from the rover as of July 18.

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The nearly 15-year-old rover is not out of the woods yet as it could take weeks, or even months, for the dust to start settling. Pixabay

Luckily, all that dust acts as an atmospheric insulator, keeping nighttime temperatures from dropping down to lower than what Opportunity can handle.

But the nearly 15-year-old rover is not out of the woods yet as it could take weeks, or even months, for the dust to start settling.

When the skies begin to clear, Opportunity’s solar panels may be covered by a fine film of dust. That could delay a recovery of the rover as it gathers energy to recharge its batteries. A gust of wind would help, but is not a requirement for a full recovery, NASA said.

While the Opportunity team waits in earnest to hear from the rover, scientists on other Mars missions have gotten a rare chance to study this storm.

Also Read-Survival Of Mars Rover Is Under Threat Due To A sandstorm

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey, and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiters are all tailoring their observations of the Red Planet to study this global storm and learn more about Mars’ weather patterns.

Meanwhile, the Curiosity rover is studying the dust storm from the Martian surface, the US space agency added. (IANS)