Planet-hunting Kepler space telescope to be retired

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler Space Telescope

"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", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

NASA launched Kepler in 2009, and despite mechanical issues and dwindling fuel, the spacecraft has well-exceeded its original 3.5-year mission.

Already well past its expected lifetime, the nine-year-old Kepler had been running low on fuel for months. Its ability to point at distant stars and identify possible alien worlds worsened dramatically at the beginning of October, but flight controllers still managed to retrieve its latest observations.

The telescope has now gone silent.

Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said, "I guess I feel like it was the little spacecraft that could".

The Kepler telescope discovered more than 2,600 of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets - the term for planets outside our solar system - that have been documented in the past two decades. It showed us rocky worlds the size of Earth that, like Earth, might harbour life.

By staring down stars, Kepler also unveiled incredible super Earths: planets bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune.

But all of that took rocket fuel, and last June, engineers saw a major drop in fuel tank pressure, indicating the spacecraft's tank was almost empty. "That was an fantastic diving catch", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters.

"It has revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos", Hertz said. "But now we know. that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".

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Nearly lost in 2013 because of equipment failure, Kepler was salvaged by engineers and kept peering into the cosmos, thick with stars and galaxies, ever on the lookout for dips in in the brightness of stars that could indicate an orbiting planet.

Launched atop a Delta 2 rocket on March 14, 2009, Kepler was boosted into an orbit around the sun, trailing the Earth and aiming its 95-megapixel camera at a patch of sky the size of an out-stretched hand near the constellation Cygnus that contains more than 4.5 million detectable stars.

"It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a auto headlight when the vehicle was 100 miles away", said Borucki said.

When it comes to the planet quest, the next big thing on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now due for launch in 2021 and may be able to look for signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets. In that time, it has spotted thousands of exoplanet candidates and shown us that planets are rather ubiquitous, outnumbering stars in our galaxy.

The distinction helped scientists zero in on potential Earth-like planets and better the odds of finding conditions which could support life.

Nasa's retired principal investigator for the Kepler mission, Bill Borucki, described it as an "enormous success". Depending on assumptions, the mission identified somewhere around two to 12 potentially habitable rocky planets.

Tess project scientist Padi Boyd called Kepler's mission "stunningly successful". "Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy". It remains in orbit around Ceres, which, like Vesta, is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory experienced technical problems earlier this month that have since been fully repaired.

In a briefing with reporters, agency officials said that Kepler ended operations after exhausting the last of its hydrazine fuel used for attitude control.

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