NASA's Kepler spacecraft dead after discovering thousands of planets
03 November, 2018, 18:58
The spacecraft had been in what NASA called a "no-fuel-use" safe mode since it was contacted by controllers October 19.
As NASA's first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond. "But now we know, because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission, that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".
"The Kepler mission has been an enormous success", said Bill Borucki, the original Kepler principal investigator and leader of the team that convinced NASA to build and launch the $692 million mission in 2009. But Kepler's overall planet census showed that 20 to 50 per cent of the stars visible in the night sky could have planets like ours in the habitable zone for life, he said. "This is not unexpected, and this marks the end of spacecraft operations for Kepler and the end of the collection of science data".
Launched in March 2009, the space observatory (named after astronomer Johannes Kepler) was created to assess some 150,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus. Somehow, while feeling like such a small part of the universe, Kepler made it far more interesting. It found inferno-like gas giants, rocky planets, planets orbiting binary stars, Earth-size planets, planets in the habitable zone capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, planets twice the size of Earth, the strangely flickering Tabby's Star, new details about the TRAPPIST-1 planets and, in December, an eight-planet system.
One of the big conclusions is that there may be well more planets than stars in the Milky Way, thanks to the number of multiple-planet systems found by Kepler.
Kepler launched initially with enough fuel on board to sustain it for four years - and it's lasted nine.
NASA's elite planet-hunting spacecraft has been declared dead, just a few months shy of its 10th anniversary. "Kepler has had a successful nine-and-a-half year mission".
The observation of so many stars has allowed scientists to better understand stellar behaviors and properties, which is critical information in studying the planets that orbit them. At present, Kepler is trailing the Earth at a distance of about 94 million miles (151,278,336 km). It began science operations in late July, as Kepler was waning, and is looking for planets orbiting 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars to Earth.
"In the end, we didn't have a drop of fuel left for anything else", said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer. However, although these planets tend to be the most enticing, according to Kepler, they are not the most common type of planet out there. They convinced their peers and they convinced NASA that this was a mission that had to be done.
But while Borucki is fascinated by planets that could potentially host life, he's also struck by the sheer diversity of the more than 600 solar systems Kepler has studied. "It hit me like a sledgehammer in the chest when Kepler showed us that there really, really are planets out there of all different kinds".
"Now, because of Kepler, what we think about the universe has changed", NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz told the Verge.
As we prepare to say goodbye to these two record-breaking missions, we rejoice in the fact that discoveries will still arise from their data decades into the future.
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