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NASA finds cash for Kepler's K2 planet-spotting mission

Not enough coin behind the sofa to keep Spitzer and NeoWISE alive

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With budget reviews complete, NASA has okayed the extension of the Kepler mission, and has managed to find dollars to keep alive a bunch of other space astronomy missions.

It's bad news for the Spitzer mission, which at this stage is set to be cut in the new budget. The infrared space telescope, launched in 2003, exhausted its cryogenic coolant in 2009. Since then, it's been operating in “warm mode” with reduced sensitivity – but has continued to deliver data.

For example, during April we reported Spitzer's involvement in identifying a brown dwarf neighbour to the solar system, just 7.2 light years away.

“If the mission cannot operate with the recommended allocations, the Spitzer team should consult with Headquarters for a smooth termination of the mission,” the review states.

Spitzer would need a new appropriation from the US Congress in 2016, or its mission will come to an end.

It's far better news for Kepler fans, however, with the review recommending funding go ahead for the Kepler 2 mission.

NASA has already tested the idea, floated last year, that Kepler can be stabilised using the pressure of the solar wind. The K2 “Second Light” mission, NASA says, means there's “two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery”.

There'll also be “new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae.”

Australian National University astronomer Dr Brad Tucker says the review decision, which provides dollars until the end of 2016, means the mission is funded “essentially until [Kepler] is about to run out of fuel”.

Dr Tucker has a stake in the continuation of the mission: K2 means that the work he's participating in, supernova-spotting, is on the list. The hope is that when Kepler is pointed away from the Milky Way and towards distant galaxies, the mission will be able to capture start-to-finish supernova events.

“For each field [of view] we will be monitoring between 3,000 and 10,000 galaxies,” Tucker explained to The Register.

“K2 will also do lots for different types of planet and star studies,” he noted, with 76 programs accepted. Most of them follow Kepler's original mission to study stars and use them to spot planets. “K2 will still be true to the original Kepler purpose, but it is diversifying”, he said.

NASA's response to the Senior Review also slates the MaxWISE mission to for the chop. ®

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