Science

NASA's Kepler probe rouses from its slumber, up and running again

The old space telescope isn't giving up

By Katyanna Quach

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NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft, Kepler, is back scanning the stars after an period of hibernation and repair.

After the spacecraft downloaded a wad of data - codenamed Campaign 19 - in late August, it powered down for a snooze in sleep mode. Now, it’s back up and running after NASA has fixed up one of its thrusters.

“The Kepler spacecraft began collecting science data on Aug. 29 for its 19th observation campaign. After being roused from sleep mode the spacecraft's configuration has been modified due to unusual behavior exhibited by one of the thrusters. Preliminary indications are that the telescope's pointing performance may be somewhat degraded. It remains unclear how much fuel remains; NASA continues to monitor the health and performance of the spacecraft,” the space agency announced.

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Kepler is on its last legs and has surprised scientists as it continues to plow on, catching light from distant stars. The telescope was launched in 2009 and was expected to last about three and a half years. But it’s still here nine years later, helping scientists to discover thousands of exoplanets.

The journey hasn’t been completely smooth, however. In 2013, two of its reaction wheels, that act like gyroscopes helping the spacecraft point in the right direction, failed. Soon after, NASA stopped trying to fix the issue as Kepler’s position could still be controlled by its thrusters.

Earlier this year in March, NASA announced that the aging spacecraft was coughing and spluttering the last of its fuel supply. It launched with 12 kilograms - a little over 3 gallons - worth of fuel but this stash is now close to exhaustion.

Once it runs dry, Kepler won’t be able to change its direction to focus on particular stars. Kepler sniffs out exoplanets by looking out for the characteristic dip in a star’s brightness as an exoplanet passes across between the star and spacecraft - a technique known as the transit method.

But even if Kepler fails it does have a successor. NASA launched its TESS spacecraft in April. Science operations were kickstarted in July and it also uses the transit method to scope out other worlds. ®

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