The end is nigh for NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope

An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has discovered that approximately 70 percent of all known exoplanets to date.


The end is near for the most prolific planet hunter of all time.

NASA’s iconic Kepler space telescope has discovered 70 percent of the 3,750 exoplanets known to date is running so little fuel that the agency has put it in a sleep state, agency officials announced today (6 July).

NASA made the move in an attempt to ensure that Kepler has enough fuel to the radius of the latest data haul his handlers beginning of the following month. [Kepler 7 Largest Exo-planet Discoveries (so Far)]

“To have the data at home, the spaceship must be big antenna back to Earth and send the data during the allocated Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in the beginning of August,” NASA officials wrote in a statement today. (The Deep Space Network is the global array of radio telescopes that NASA uses to communicate with its distant spacecraft.)

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“Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable, and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode,” they added. “On Aug. 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and the maneuvering of the spacecraft to the right direction and downlink the data.”

The $600 million Kepler mission, launched in March 2009, with the aim of helping astronomers determine how common Earth-like planets in the Milky way. The spaceship find alien worlds using the “transit method,” noting the tiny brightness dips caused when the planets cross a star’s face from Kepler’s perspective.

Kepler is enormously successful by any measure. For example, in addition to the impressive raw planet tally (which goes up significantly; scientists are still reviewing more than 2,000 planet candidates discovered by the Kepler), spacecraft observations suggest that about 20 percent of sunlike stars host an approximately Earth-size planet in the habitable zone — that just-right range of distances where liquid water can exist on earth.

During its primary mission, the Kepler to about 150,000 stars at the same time, on the hunt for promising transits. That work ran until May 2013, when the second of the spacecraft’s four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed. Engineers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler with the help of sunlight pressure, however, and in 2014, the spacecraft began an extended mission known as K2.

Kepler continues to find exoplanets during the K2, but it is the study of a variety of other celestial objects and phenomena. Kepler is doing this for the extensive mission work in approximately 80 days “campaigns,” which has a slightly different focus.

Kepler has completed 18 K2 campaigns to date. If enough fuel remains after the Aug. 2 phone call home, campaign 19 will begin on Aug. 6, NASA officials said.

The fuel situation does not come as a big surprise; NASA announced in March that Kepler was low, and would likely have to cease operations in a matter of months. Fuel in the spaceship is not an option; Kepler is in orbit around the sun, not the Earth, and it is currently millions of kilometres from our planet.

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