Awesome spaceship that discovered hundreds of new planets may soon be space junk

Space Business
Space Business

Kepler, a spacecraft designed to find habitable planets, may not last until the intended end of the mission in 2016. Launched in 2009, Kepler was originally meant to last only three and a half years, but its life was extended in 2012 because of all the wealth of data it was producing. Already Kepler has confirmed the existence of at least 100 planets and found thousands more candidates for planet status.

This image provided by NASA shows an artist's depiction showing a discovery by NASA's Kepler mission of a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. The planet, called Kepler-16b, is the most "Tatooine-like" planet yet found in our galaxy and is depicted here with its two stars. Tatooine is the name of Luke Skywalker's home world in the science fiction movie Star Wars. In this case, the planet it not thought to be habitable. It is a cold world, with a gaseous surface, but like Tatooine, it circles two stars. The largest of the two stars, a K dwarf, is about 69 percent the mass of our sun, and the smallest, a red dwarf, is about 20 percent the sun's mass. (AP photo/NASA)
Kepler finds planets, like the smallest sphere here, by looking at suns until a dark spot passes over. (NASA)

Named for the German scientist who described the laws of planetary motion, Kepler finds planets by staring at the sun and watching for changes in light as planets pass in front of it. But it doesn’t just stare at one sun—it simultaneously measures the brightness of over 100,000 stars every 30 minutes. To do this, Kepler needs to keep a steady line of sight. Four spinning wheels within the spacecraft help it maintain that balance.

** FILE ** This artist rendition provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope. Kepler is designed to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The first opportunity to launch the unmanned Kepler space telescope aboard a Delta II rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday March 6, 2009 at 10:48 p.m. EST. (AP Photo/NASA, File) ** zu APD1395 **
Named for a German scientist, Kepler has already found hundreds of bodies that may be planets. (NASA)

Last July, one of the wheels malfunctioned and stopped working. Kepler continued providing accurate data because it only needs three wheels to function. But in January, a second wheel started acting up. In an attempt to mitigate the problem, mission control put the spacecraft in “safe mode” for 10 days and allowed the wheels to rest.

This week however, NASA reports that the wheel continues to exhibit signs of deterioration. “All appropriate mitigation steps to prolong wheel life have now been taken,” which means its likely only a matter of time before the wheel fails.

This artist rendering provided by NASA, shows Kepler-11, a sun-like star around which six planets orbit.  A planet-hunting telescope is finding whole new worlds of possibilities in the search for alien life, including more than 50 potential planets that initially appear to be in habitable zones. (AP Photo/NASA)
One sun alone, named Kepler-11, yielded six planets. (NASA)

According to Franck Marchis, a researcher at SETI, Kepler’s wheel failures are not unique. “Dawn, another NASA mission designed to explore Vesta and Ceres, also lost two of his reaction wheels this year. Because this spacecraft does not need a pointing as accurate as Kepler, the problem was solved by developing a hybrid strategy relying on two reaction wheels and the thrusters of the probe,” he wrote on his blog. He added that he had been told a similar solution may not work for Kepler.

This undated handout artist rendering provided by NASA shows Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. It is the first planet that NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed to orbit in a star's habitable zone -- the region around a star where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. NASA has found the new planet outside our solar system that's eerily similar to Earth in key aspects. Scientists say the temperature on the surface of the planet is about a comfy 72 degrees. Its star could almost be a twin of our sun. It likely has water and land.  (AP Photo/NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
Some planets, such as Kepler-22b, are in the habitable zone—not too hot, not too cold—and may even contain water. (NASA)

This week’s update suggest that it might be possible after all. Kepler’s thrusters can keep it steady, or a combination of thrusters and the remaining wheels could keep it going for a while yet, writes mission manager Roger Hunter. But that may mean reduced performance. The last time a wheel malfunctioned, Kepler lost six days of science data. With the loss of a second wheel, it may be worse.

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