Kepler, Nasa's vaunted planet-hunting space telescope, has run out of manoeuvring fuel and is being retired, the space agency announced on Tuesday. Scientists credit it for changing the way they think about other worlds that may be visited someday. Now that it's out of fuel, NASA chose to officially retire the spacecraft, letting it float in a safe orbit far from Earth. NASA's TESS SatelliteThe search for exoplanets similar to Earth, however, does not end with Kepler.
"The search for planets is the search for life", said Natalie Batalha, a longtime Kepler mission scientist now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a conference in 2017.
The space telescope was nearly lost in 2013 when Kepler had a failure, but engineers found a way to fix it and help the mission carry on until this month. The first Kepler mission spent 2009 to 2013 staring at the same patch of sky near the Cygnus constellation, leading to the identification of 2,327 formerly unknown planets beyond our galaxy.
NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz made the announcement during a teleconference today that included Bill Borucki, Kepler's principal investigator.
Two-third of the planets discovered so far are thanks to Kepler's observations.
"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", Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in DC, said in the NASA statement.
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Scientists are expected to spend at least another decade searching for more discoveries buried in the pile of photometric data that Kepler has captured.
Many theories and experiments aspire to transform our view of the universe, but the Kepler mission actually did so. Some time next week, the engineers will send a command to turn off the spacecraft's transmitter and other instruments and leave it to orbit.
Before retiring Kepler, NASA pushed the telescope to its fullest potential, and successfully completed many observations and downloaded the valuable data, after initial low fuel warnings. 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 planetsand, in December, an eight-planet system.
The Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory experienced technical problems earlier this month that have since been fully repaired.
"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", said Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Centre in California's Silicon Valley. "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". They dubbed this new mission K2, which found another 354 planets, with 473 additional candidates awaiting confirmation today.