The End Is Nigh for NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler K2

Kepler began its 18th observation run on 12 May, using its 100-megapixel camera to monitor starlight from a patch of sky that was previously studied in 2015, on the lookout for the tell-tale dips in brightness that might indicate a planet moving between a star and the spacecraft. If the maneuver and download are successful, the team will begin its 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the remaining fuel. "In our case, there is no next station, so we want to stop collecting data while we're still comfortable that we can aim the spacecraft to bring it back to Earth", the space agency added.

For now, Kepler's team is concentrating on the downloading of data gathered during the spacecraft's most recent observation. The space agency has put the satellite into a form of hibernation until August 2, when there's time booked on the Deep Space Network-a global array of receivers for space missions-to download data from its 18th observational mission. The second-look data will allow astronomers to verify or rule out exoplanet candidates found earlier and identify new candidates in the process.

The fuel situation doesn't come as a big surprise; NASA announced in March that Kepler was running low and would likely have to cease operations in a matter of months.

On August 2, the Kepler team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and manoeuvre the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data. NASA mission scientists figured out a clever workaround, in which they used pressure from the Sun to provide additional positioning assistance.

Kane: We want to finish the job
Of course, this could just be the start for this England team, like 2006 was for Germany. "Before I knew it, I'd missed my train". "What I would like is the England from before, but now they are very strong and we have to respect them", he said.

As engineers preserve the new data stored on the spacecraft, scientists are continuing to mine existing data already on the ground. 24 new planet discoveries were recently made using information gleaned from Kepler's 10th observation campaign, adding to the mission's growing total of 2,650 confirmed worlds orbiting distant stars.

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

The Kepler space telescope, which is now 94 million miles away from Earth, has survived many potential knock-outs during its nine years in flight, from mechanical failures to being blasted by cosmic rays. Kepler was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies and had a planned operational life of about three and a half years.

Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott.

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