Published: Wed, October 31, 2018
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NASA's planet-hunter telescope, Kepler, runs out of fuel

NASA's planet-hunter telescope, Kepler, runs out of fuel

"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 Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

Officials announced the Kepler Space Telescope's demise Tuesday.

Back in 2009: Kepler was launched with enough fuel for six years but managed to last for nine. The telescope has now gone silent, its fuel tank empty.

During its mission, Kepler found 2,681 confirmed exoplanets - the term for planets outside our solar system - and another 2,899 candidates, bringing its tally to 5,580. But Kepler's overall planet census showed that 20 to 50 per cent of the stars visible in the night sky could have planets like ours in the habitable zone for life, he said.

Launched on March 6 in 2009, the Kepler space telescope combined cutting-edge techniques in measuring stellar brightness with the largest digital camera outfitted for outer space observations at that time, reported Xinhua.

When it comes to the planet quest, the next big thing on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now due for launch in 2021 and may be able to look for signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets.

The telescope's findings indicate that distant star systems are populated with billions of planets, and it even helped pinpoint the first moon known outside our solar system.

Kepler discovered thousands of planets, many of them similar in size to the Earth (far right), though how they might appear is still a matter of speculation. It found inferno-like gas giants, rocky planets, planets orbiting binary stars, Earth-size planets, planets in the habitable zone capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, planets twice the size of Earth, the strangely flickering Tabby's Star, new details about the TRAPPIST-1 planets and, in December, an eight-planet system.

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. The spacecraft itself is fine, by all accounts; rather, it no longer has any fuel left to continue powering its operations.

"Because of Kepler, what we think about our place in the universe has changed", said Hertz.

"Around every star in the galaxy, we're confident now that there's probably at least one planet - so more planets than stars without a doubt and that's something that Kepler has shown us", he said.

Fortunately, although Kepler is now retired, its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just getting started. "Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy".

"But what was just as wonderful to me was the implications, contacts, and conversations I had over the years with others about religion, life, the universe, and our home planet Earth", Howell added.

Tess project scientist Padi Boyd called Kepler's mission "stunningly successful". It's already identified some possible planets.

NASA's 11-year-old Dawn spacecraft is pretty much out of fuel after orbiting the asteroid Vesta as well as the dwarf planet Ceres. NASA has decided on October 30, 2018, to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth.

Artist's concept of the Kepler Space Telescope, which led the search for exoplanets over the past decade.

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