Explorer Down: Kepler Ends Extended Mission

Sad news, even though NASA is looking to engineer some lemonade:

Kepler TelescopeFollowing months of analysis and testing, the Kepler Space Telescope team is ending its attempts to restore the spacecraft to full working order, and now is considering what new science research it can carry out in its current condition.

Two of Kepler’s four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which are used to precisely point the spacecraft, have failed. The first was lost in July 2012, and the second in May [2013]. Engineers’ efforts to restore at least one of the wheels have been unsuccessful. … the spacecraft needs three functioning wheels to continue its search for Earth-sized exoplanets ….

…. Informed by contributions from the broader science community in response to the call for scientific white papers announced Aug. 2, the Kepler project team will perform a study to identify possible science opportunities for a two-wheel Kepler mission.

Depending on the outcome of these studies, which are expected to be completed later this year, NASA will assess the scientific priority of a two-wheel Kepler mission. Such an assessment may include prioritization relative to other NASA astrophysics missions competing for operational funding at the NASA Senior Review board early next year.

Explorer down.

Certes, we might raise a glass to our planet-hunting friend, but it is not time to say good-bye. NASA is looking to make some lemonade, and doing a good job of sounding excited about it:

“This is not the last you’ll hear from Kepler,” promised Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics director.

“Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets, including several super-Earths in the habitable zone,” said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who heads NASA’s science mission office ….

…. “Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon,” Grunsfeld said in a news release ….

…. Kepler’s principal investigator, William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said no one knew at the beginning of Kepler’s mission whether Earth-size planets were rare and whether Earthlings might be alone.

“Now at the completion of Kepler observations, we know our galaxy is filled to the brim with planets,” Borucki said at a news conference. A large portion of these planets are small like Earth, not gas giants like Jupiter, he noted.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of more exoplanets are expected from Kepler findings, Borucki said. He said it would take another three years to analyze the remaining data.

“We literally expect … the most exciting discoveries are to come in the next few years as we search through all this data,” he said.

Good luck, Kepler.

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