Science

NASA's Kepler telescope is sent back to sleep as scientists preserve fuel for the next data dump

Fingers crossed that the wee probe has enough energy to send something back

By Katyanna Quach

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Kepler’s resurrection from hibernation has been short-lived - NASA has put the veteren space telescope back in sleep mode after it was up and running less than a month ago.

The probe, sent to sniff out exoplanets that may be lie in habitable zones around stars, is expected to run out of fuel soon. Launched in March 2009, the Kepler mission was planned for only three and a half years. When it was preparing for take off, however, NASA found that the rocket could carry spare mass and decided to add enough fuel to last ten years.

It has now been flying for nine and a half years and supplies are slowly petering out. Ground control has powered Kepler down to a state that doesn’t require any fuel so the agency can save what’s left for what they call “Deep Space Network time”.

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On 10 October, Kepler will be restarted and directed to point its antenna back to Earth in the hopes that it will be able to transmit data back home.

“Due to uncertainties about the remaining available fuel, there is no guarantee that NASA will be able to download the science data. If successful the Kepler team will attempt to start the next observing campaign with the remaining fuel.” the space agency announced.

The last and 19th observation campaign began in late August after the spacecraft was woken from its slumber and modified, after one of its thrusters was faulty. This makes it difficult to point the telescope along a specific direction.

That’s not the first technical problem, too. Two of its reaction wheels that helps Kepler steady and position itself failed in 2012 and 2013. Now, NASA just relies on its thrusters, the remaining wheels, and the pressure of solar wind to control the spacecraft.

Kepler has found more than 2,600 exoplanets so far. “A recent notable find is Wolf 503b, a nearby super-Earth-size planet orbiting a bright star. At approximately twice the size of Earth, Wolf 503b is representative of the most common size of planet Kepler found in the galaxy. However, since there are no planets this size in our own solar system, we have a lot left to learn about planets this size.” NASA said.

Hopefully, targets like Wolf 503b can be observed further with Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April this year. ®

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