NASA Retires Its Planet Hunter, the Kepler Space Telescope

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out of fuel

NASA's most prolific planet-hunter is powering down after almost a decade of revealing the diversity of our galaxy's planets.

Officials announced the Kepler Space Telescope's demise Tuesday. Kepler has been running out of fuel for months, according to Space.com. The telescope has now gone silent, its fuel tank empty.

As Dr Andrew Rushby, a former scientist at NASA's Ames Research Centre told ten daily earlier this year, one of Kepler's greatest contributions was the concept there are more planets than stars in our galaxy. But Kepler's overall planet census showed that 20 to 50 per cent of the stars visible in the night sky could have planets like ours in the habitable zone for life, he said.

Kepler's data also provided a new way to assess whether a planet had a solid surface, like Earth and Mars, or is gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn.

"The Kepler spacecraft may now be retired, but the Kepler data will continue to yield scientific discoveries for years to come", Hertz said.

For years, Kepler stared at a fixed area of the sky bridging the constellations Lyra and Cygnus to monitor about 150,000 stars for signs of planets.

"And because of Kepler, we know that solar systems come in a variety of configurations completely unlike our own, solar systems with Jupiters orbiting their stars in only a few days, solar systems with small, rocky planets packed inside the orbit of Mercury, so close that the planets are in resonance with each other".

By studying slight changes in the "light curve" produced by planetary transits - comparable to watching a flea creep across a car's headlight at a distance of 100 miles - and the timing of repeated cycles, computer analysis could tease out potential Earth-like worlds in habitable-zone orbits.

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Now orbiting some 156 million kilometres from Earth, the spacecraft will drift further from our planet after its retirement, the USA space agency said. "That was an wonderful diving catch", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters.

The nine-year planet-hunting mission discovered 2,899 exoplanet candidates and 2,681 confirmed exoplanets in our galaxy, revealing that our solar system isn't the only home for planets.

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

"It has revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos", Hertz said.

Kepler showed us that "we live in a galaxy that's teeming with planets, and we're ready to take the next step to explore those planets", she said.

Kepler has studied more than 500,000 stars in this way. It is created to cover an area 400 times larger than Kepler could manage and is expected to find some 20,000 or more exoplanets during the course of its mission.

Tess project scientist Padi Boyd called Kepler's mission "stunningly successful". And recent glitches with the 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the 19-year-old Chandra X-Ray Observatory have signaled that those grand-scale telescopes are past their prime, mechanically if not scientifically. The sequence of commands for doing so has been transmitted to the spacecraft, awaiting a final command from the ground to run them.

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