Published: Tue, July 10, 2018
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NASA’s Kepler Telescope almost out of fuel, forced to nap

NASA’s Kepler Telescope almost out of fuel, forced to nap

For example, in addition to its impressive raw planet tally (which will go up significantly; scientists are still vetting more than 2,000 planet candidates detected by Kepler), the spacecraft's observations suggest that about 20 percent of sunlike stars host a roughly Earth-size planet in the habitable zone - that just-right range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface. Once the data has been downloaded, the expectation is to start observations for the next campaign with any remaining fuel. Returning the data back to Earth is the highest priority for the remaining fuel. The space agency has put the satellite into a form of hibernation until August 2, when there's time booked on the Deep Space Network-a global array of receivers for space missions-to download data from its 18th observational mission. The planet-hunting spacecraft was placed into hibernation safe mode past Monday to prepare for the downloading of the science data collected during the observatory's latest observation campaign. The hibernation-like mode will conserve fuel in preparation for this download period, after which point NASA plans to send Kepler off to make more observations. The agency has been monitoring the Kepler spacecraft closely for signs of low fuel, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months. NASA mission scientists figured out a clever workaround, in which they used pressure from the Sun to provide additional positioning assistance.

As engineers work to collect the data now aboard the spacecraft, researchers are analyzing data already returned to Earth.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission is specifically created to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets. TESS is a massive upgrade, observing nearly 400 times the region of space as Kepler, or about 85% of what's observable from its orbit relative to Earth. TESS is expected to discover thousands of exoplanets orbiting nearby stars over the course of its planned two year mission.


Launched in 2009, Kepler has endured mechanical failures and other mishaps. The spacecraft began its work a couple months later.

Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott.

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