NASA’s Kepler telescope has run out of fuel and will be left to drift among the stars. The telescope has spent the last nine years searching distant stars for potentially habitable Earth-sized planets.
“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,” said associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”
Kepler’s primary mission began on May 12, 2009. It would remain in service for 4 years. In 2013, failures in two of the telescope’s four reaction wheels left it all but crippled. In November 2013, the telescope’s Second Light (K2) mission began. K2 utilised the telescope’s remaining functionality to study “supernova explosions, star formation and Solar-System bodies”. The revised mission plan extended Kepler’s observations for an additional five years.
Over its 9 years, 7 months, and 23 days of service, Kepler observed 530,506 stars, travelled 94 million miles, collected 678 gigabytes of data and discovered 2,662 confirmed planets. Yet this will not be the extent of Kepler’s contribution. Much of the data from the telescope has yet to be analysed with several more discoveries likely awaiting researchers.
“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Kepler’s project scientist, Jessie Dotson. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results.”
In the wake of Kepler, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will take up the reins and continue the search. TESS was launched in April this year and became operational in August. The satellite’s primary mission is expected to last 2 years.