Sometimes the best physicists, engineers, and mathematicians in the world can't save a failing satellite. NASA announced today that it has given up attempts to restore the malfunctioning Kepler Space Telescope.
One of the Kepler's four reaction wheels failed back in July 2012, and a second went out this past May. Since that time NASA researchers have been attempting to recover at lease one of the wheels, which are necessary for the telescope to be precisely aimed. With the restoration effort now abandoned, NASA has effectively cancelled the spacecraft's four-year extended mission, which began after the completion of its primary mission in November 2012.
NASA is now considering how the Kepler might be used for research using only its two remaining reaction wheels. Much of the data Kepler collected during its primary mission is still being evaluated, meaning that the satellite will continue to contribute to discoveries for some time to come.
"Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets including several super-Earths in the habitable zone," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon."
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has been searching for Earth-like exoplanets. The telescope has succeeded in its primary mission, confirming 135 different exoplanets in dozens of space systems. The discoveries include a planet in a system with four stars, exoplanets smaller than Earth, and a planet that could be similar to Star Wars' Tatooine. In addition, the spacecraft identified more than 3,500 candidate planets, meaning its greatest discoveries could still await.
"At the beginning of our mission, no one knew if Earth-size planets were abundant in the galaxy," said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center. "If they were rare, we might be alone. Now at the completion of Kepler observations, the data holds the answer to the question that inspired the mission: 'Are Earths in the habitable zone of stars like our sun common or rare?'"
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)