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Kepler Telescope Declared Dead After Running Low On Fuel For Months: NASA

Kepler should remain in a safe, stable orbit around the sun.

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Kepler, NASA, tissue
This illustration made available by NASA shows the Kepler Space Telescope. As of October 2018, the planet-hunting spacecraft has been in space for nearly a decade. VOA

NASA’s elite planet-hunting spacecraft has been declared dead, just a few months shy of its 10th anniversary.

Officials announced the Kepler Space Telescope’s demise Tuesday.

Already well past its expected lifetime, the 9½-year-old Kepler had been running low on fuel for months. Its ability to point at distant stars and identify possible alien worlds worsened dramatically at the beginning of October, but flight controllers still managed to retrieve its latest observations. The telescope has now gone silent, its fuel tank empty.

“Kepler opened the gate for mankind’s exploration of the cosmos,” said retired NASA scientist William Borucki, who led the original Kepler science team.

Kepler, NASA
An artist’s composite of the Kepler telescope is seen in this undated NASA handout image. Two of Kepler’s four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which are used to precisely point the spacecraft, failed in 2013, but engineers salvaged the telescope and it continued to peer into the cosmos for several more years. VOA

Super Earths found

Kepler discovered 2,681 planets outside our solar system and even more potential candidates. It showed us rocky worlds the size of Earth that, like Earth, might harbor life. It also unveiled incredible super Earths: planets bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune.

NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz estimated that anywhere from two to a dozen of the planets discovered by Kepler are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks zone — the habitable area around a star where the temperature would permit existence of liquid water. But Kepler’s overall planet census showed that 20 percent to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky could have planets like ours in such a habitable zone for life, he said.

The $700 million mission even helped to uncover last year a solar system with eight planets, just like ours.

“It has revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos,” Hertz said. “Now we know because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy.”

Kepler, NASA
An artist’s concept provided by NASA shows the Keplar Spacecraft moving through space. VOA

Almost lost in 2013 because of equipment failure, Kepler was salvaged by engineers and kept peering into the cosmos, thick with stars and galaxies, ever on the lookout for dips in in the brightness of stars that could indicate an orbiting planet.

“It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a car headlight when the car was 100 miles away,” said Borucki said.

The resurrected mission became known as K2 and yielded 350 confirmed exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars, on top of what the telescope had already uncovered since its March 7, 2009, launch from Cape Canaveral.

In all, close to 4,000 exoplanets have been confirmed over the past two decades, two-thirds of them thanks to Kepler.

Kepler focused on stars thousands of light-years away and, according to NASA, showed that statistically there’s at least one planet around every star in our Milky Way galaxy.

TESS, rover, NASA, mercuryKeplar, NASA
TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is shown in this conceptual illustration obtained by Reuters on March 28, 2018. NASA sent TESS into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. VOA

Borucki, who dreamed up the mission decades ago, said one of his favorite discoveries was Kepler 22b, a water planet bigger than Earth but in an area where it is not too warm and not too cold — the type “that could lead to life.”

Successor spacecraft

A successor to Kepler launched in April, NASA’s Tess spacecraft, has its sights on stars closer to home. It’s already identified some possible planets.

Tess project scientist Padi Boyd called Kepler’s mission “stunningly successful.”

Kepler showed us that “we live in a galaxy that’s teeming with planets, and we’re ready to take the next step to explore those planets,” she said.

Another longtime spacecraft chasing strange worlds in our own solar system, meanwhile, is also close to death.

NASA’s 11-year-old Dawn spacecraft is pretty much out of fuel after orbiting the asteroid Vesta as well as the dwarf planet Ceres. It remains in orbit around Ceres, which, like Vesta, is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA, Hubble, Keplar
The telescope has now gone silent, its fuel tank empty.Flickr

Two of NASA’s older telescopes have been hit with equipment trouble recently, but have recovered. The 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope resumed science observations last weekend, following a three-week shutdown. The 19-year-old Chandra X-ray Telescope’s pointing system also ran into trouble briefly in October. Both cases involved critical gyroscopes, needed to point the telescopes.

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Hertz said all the spacecraft problems were “completely independent” and coincidental in timing.

Now 94 million miles from Earth, Kepler should remain in a safe, stable orbit around the sun. Flight controllers will disable the spacecraft’s transmitters, before bidding it a final “goodnight.” (VOA)

Next Story

China To Launch its First Mars Probe in July This Year

In November last year, China unveiled an experiment simulating the process of a probe hovering, avoiding obstacles and descending to land on Mars

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Mars
This is the first time the country disclosed the launch month of its Mars exploration programme, according to the newspaper which cited sources from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Pixabay

China announced that it will launch its first Mars mission probe in July this year, China Youth Daily reported on Thursday.

This is the first time the country disclosed the launch month of its Mars exploration programme, according to the newspaper which cited sources from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

The Mars probe will be sent by the Long March-5 Y4 carrier rocket.

The Long March-5 Y4 rocket has recently completed a 100-second test for its high thrust hydrogen-oxygen engine, which is the last engine examination before the final assembly, Xinhua reported.

According to the CASC, China will send a probe to orbit and land and deploy a rover on Mars.

In 2020, the Long March-5 rocket will carry out several missions, including the Mars probe launch and the lunar sample return.

A total of 24 high thrust hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine tests will be conducted this year for these missions.

Mars, Red Planet, Planet, Starry Sky, Space, Universe
 China announced that it will launch its first Mars mission probe in July this year, China Youth Daily reported on Thursday. Pixabay

In November last year, China unveiled an experiment simulating the process of a probe hovering, avoiding obstacles and descending to land on Mars.

The experiment was held on a trial ground, the largest one in Asia for test landing on extraterrestrial bodies, in Huailai county, Hebei province, reported Xinhua.

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How to safely land on Mars is one of the biggest challenges facing the mission.

The experiment simulated the gravity of Mars, about one-third of the gravity on Earth, to test the design of the lander. (IANS)