Astronomers seek new uses for planet-hunting spacecraft
Even as astronomers mourned the end of the Kepler spacecraft’s data-gathering effort, they emphasized that its legacy would continue as they worked their way through the information Kepler has already amassed.
The New York Times
NASA said Thursday that its celebrated planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft, which broke down in May when a reaction wheel that controls its orientation failed, will never get well enough to hunt for planets around other stars, so-called exoplanets, again.
The disappointing news brings to an end, for now, one phase of the most romantic of space dreams, the search for other Earths in the Milky Way. NASA has asked astronomers for ideas on how to use the hobbled spacecraft, whose telescope remains in perfect shape.
Even as they mourned the end of Kepler’s data-gathering effort, astronomers emphasized that its legacy would continue as they worked their way through a trove of observations the spacecraft has already made. Since it was launched in March 2009, the $600 million Kepler mission has discovered, at last count, 3,548 possible planets and verified about 135 of them from other instruments, including earthbound telescopes. But hundreds or thousands more are in the pipeline, said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif., Kepler’s originator and principal investigator.
“The most exciting discoveries are going to come in the next few years as we search through this data,” Borucki said in a telephone news conference Thursday. “In the next few years we’re going to be able to answer the questions that inspired Kepler: Are Earthlike planets common or rare in the galaxy?”
NASA expects to know by year’s end whether the mission is salvageable. Kepler is already on an extended quest; its prime, 3½-year mission ended in November.
The spacecraft is 51 million miles from Earth, orbiting the sun.
NASA Astrophysics Division director Paul Hertz said the space agency would now conduct two studies: an engineering study to determine what operations are possible for Kepler with only two working wheels, and a separate study to determine what scientific explorations might be possible under such conditions and whether they would be worth funding.
Material from Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.