Wednesday, 21 November, 2018

NASA Kepler spacecraft dies after nine years of planet hunting

The Kepler space telescope's end has finally come NASA's Kepler spacecraft dead after discovering thousands of planets
Cary Marshall | 31 October, 2018, 06:35

The US space agency's Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel and is being retired after nine and a half years, having helped discover more than 2,600 planets, some of which may hold life, officials said Tuesday. Both times, Kepler was able to transmit scientific data back to Earth and begin a new observing campaign. It also unveiled incredible super Earths: planets bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. The probe detected distant worlds by watching for the telltale dimming of starlight as a planet passed over an alien sun's disk.

Kepler's originally planned $640 million mission went far longer than anticipated, thanks in part to a spacecraft-saving fix that was made in 2013 when a crucial part of the probe's fine-pointing system went out of commission.

NASA's astrophysics director Paul Hertz estimated that anywhere from two to a dozen of the planets discovered by Kepler are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks zone. Over the life of the mission, more than 100,000 of those stars were actively monitored by Kepler. Sobeck said the extra five years of operation cost roughly $10 million a year - which is a bargain by space probe standards. As of October 29, Kepler had detected 2,681 exoplanets, with an additional 2,899 exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation, said Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA Ames.

That database is large enough to allow for a statistical analysis of planetary systems.

This artist's concept obtained October 30, 2018, courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle shows Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone. "I suspect we will be doing that next week or maybe the week after", he said. "But now we know, because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission, that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy". It's already identified some possible planets.

Kepler showed that "20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars", Nasa said in a statement.

The end of spacecraft operations means the end of new Kepler data, but project scientists said that the observations Kepler collected since its March 2009 launch will continue to be analyzed by astronomers for years to come, yielding new discoveries.

The heir to Kepler, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April and started science observations this summer. TESS is created to survey about 200,000 stars across a wide stretch of sky in our celestial neighborhood, and identify prospects for further study.

The Kepler space telescope's end has finally come

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be retired, following a nine-and-a-half-year mission in search of planets that might harbour life beyond our solar system.

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

The unmanned space telescope, which launched in 2009, revealed that billions of hidden planets are in space and revolutionized humanity's understanding of the universe, experts said.

Meanwhile, Kepler is destined to have all its systems turned off within the next week or two, and will then drift into its own orbit around the sun.

What should that epitaph say?

"Basically, Kepler opened the gate for mankind's exploration of the cosmos".

Dotson gave Kepler a more personal tribute. "I never felt it was that much of a pesky object".

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