NASA retires planet-hunting Kepler space telescope


"In the closer term, numerous planetary systems that we found with Kepler will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope to try to understand are there atmospheres and to learn more to characterize those planets", Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at Ames told SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA's legendary Kepler space telescope, which is responsible for the discovery of thousands of weird and intriguing exoplanets, has officially run out of fuel. It will be deactivated while in its current orbit of the sun, far from Earth, NASA said.

NASA has tallied the number of exoplanets that Kepler has discovered at 2,681. After completing its initial mission, NASA tasked Kepler with its extended K2 mission, which resulted in the spacecraft having surveyed more than half a million stars. Among these worlds are rocky, Earth-sized planets, some of which orbit within their stars' habitable zones, where liquid water could pool on the surface.

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, some mechanical failures temporarily halted observations.

Kepler's demise was "not unexpected and this marks the end of spacecraft operations", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at Nasa, on a conference call with reporters.

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. Over the life of the mission, more than 100,000 of those stars were actively monitored by Kepler.

TESS builds on Kepler's foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth.

The telescope laid bare the diversity of planets that reside in our Milky Way galaxy, with findings indicating that distant star systems are populated with billions of planets, and even helped pinpoint the first moon known outside our solar system. "The Kepler spacecraft may now be retired, but the Kepler data will continue to yield scientific discoveries for years to come".

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NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched in April and started sending back science data this summer.

"Basically, Kepler opened the gate for mankind's exploration of the cosmos", Kepler's now-retired chief investigator William Borucki said. The first data from TESS is already being sent to Earth and analyzed. That is, a small dip in the light from a star as the planet passed in front of it. However, although these planets tend to be the most enticing, according to Kepler, they are not the most common type of planet out there.

"We saw it drop from 90 psi [pounds per square inch] all the way down to 25 psi" over a few hours, said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center.

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.

There's poetry in Kepler's ability to make us feel both small and also so connected to the rest of our universe.

As we prepare to say goodbye to these two record-breaking missions, we rejoice in the fact that discoveries will still arise from their data decades into the future.

Kepler's mission is over, but its legacy lives on.

"Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy", he said.