Running on Empty: NASA's Kepler spacecraft pauses observations

NASA's Kepler telescope put on hibernation mode

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope is nearly out of fuel and has been forced to take a nap. Once the data is downloaded, the team expects to begin a new observation campaign with the spacecraft's remaining fuel.

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.

Launched in 2009 with an objective to learn more about the number and frequency of planets in our galaxy, the telescope which is some 94 million miles away from Earth has continuously monitored over 150,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region and has discovered over 4,600 planet candidates as per the data provided by NASA.

To bring the data home, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and transmit the data during its allotted Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in early August. The highest priority for Kepler's remaining fuel is to return the data back to Earth.

Kepler has been on its 18th observation since May 12 of this year (2018), studying a cluster of stars near the constellation of Cancer that the spacecraft had previously observed in 2015. "On Aug. 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and maneuver the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data". During this low-power state, the space agency's team will prepare to download scientific data gathered by the spacecraft, after which point it may continue onto a new mission. The second-look data will allow astronomers to verify or rule out exoplanet candidates found earlier and identify new candidates in the process.

Flight controllers placed the planet-hunting spacecraft into hibernation last week to save energy.

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Launched in 2009, Kepler has endured mechanical failures and other mishaps.

Reborn as "K2", this extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months in what scientists refer to as a "campaign".

During its mission, the Kepler suffered multiple issues. The mission has already completed 17 campaigns, and since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign. If that is successful, they plan to start a 19th observation campaign with the remaining fuel.

But scientists now know that its life is coming to end very soon. Most notable, in 2013, a malfunctioned reaction wheel on the spacecraft prevented it from being stable required NASA to readjust the mission for the Kepler.

As it turns out, Kepler has discovered that our solar system is unique compared to others, which have included blazing-hot gas giants in perilous proximity to their host stars, binary star systems, and red dwarfs orbited by numerous rocky worlds.

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