The most prolific planet-hunting machine in history has signed off.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has discovered 70 percent of the 3,800 confirmed alien worlds to date, has run out of fuel, agency officials announced last October 30.
Kepler can no longer reorient itself to study cosmic objects or beam its data home to Earth, so the legendary instrument’s in-space work is done after nearly a decade.
And that work has been transformative.
“Kepler has taught us that planets are ubiquitous and incredibly diverse,” Kepler project scientist Jessie Dotson, who’s based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California said.
“It’s changed how we look at the night sky.”
The announcement was not unexpected. Kepler has been running low on fuel for months, and mission managers put the spacecraft to sleep several times recently to extend its operational life as much as possible.
But the end couldn’t be forestalled forever; Kepler’s tank finally went dry two weeks ago, mission team members said during a telecon with reporters today.
“This marks the end of spacecraft operations for Kepler, and the end of the collection of science data,” Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said during the telecon.
Not done yet
Even though Kepler has closed its eyes, discoveries from the mission should keep rolling in for years to come.
About 2,900 “candidate” exoplanets detected by the spacecraft still need to be vetted, and most of those should end up being the real deal, Kepler team members have said.
A lot of other data still needs to be analyzed as well, Dotson stressed.
And Kepler will continue to live on in the exoplanet revolution it helped spark.
For example, in April, NASA launched a new spacecraft called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is hunting for alien worlds circling stars that lie relatively close to the sun (using the transit method, just like Kepler).
Kepler’s death “is not the end of an era,” Kepler system engineer Charlie Sobeck, also of NASA Ames said. “It’s an occasion to mark, but it’s not an end.”
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