NASA Kepler Spacecraft is Low On Fuel and Close to Death

Wednesday, 14 March 2018 - 8:09PM
Space
NASA
Wednesday, 14 March 2018 - 8:09PM
NASA Kepler Spacecraft is Low On Fuel and Close to Death
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NASA
Launched back in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft/telescope was designed to search for Earth-like exoplanets orbiting around distant stars. And despite setbacks which nearly killed it in the past, it's done an impressive job.

But Kepler's luck may be finally running out (we mean the spacecraft, not its namesake Johannes Kepler, whose luck ran out sometime in the mid-1600s). NASA has just announced that Kepler's fuel reserves are going to run dry within the next few months, and they're now forced to speed up Kepler's schedule if they hope to get everything done in time.

Because right now, all Kepler does is reposition itself to take photographs of distant pockets of space while it moves at a distance of 94 million miles away from Earth, and once the fuel tanks are empty, that's the end of that.




The current limited mobility of the Kepler spacecraft is because of a close call back in 2013, when a second reaction wheel broke (it only has four) and left the telescope unable to steady itself on any particular target. While NASA initially thought that was the end for Kepler, they tried a new strategy that involved using solar wind pressure to steady the spacecraft, and Kepler began a new mission called "K2". 

But part of K2 requires Kepler to reposition itself every three months, referred to as a "campaign". NASA predicted Kepler could survive about ten campaigns before it finally ran out of fuel, but its currently entering its 17th campaign.

There's no gas gauge to directly report how much fuel Kepler has left, but the fuel tank's pressure is dropping and the thrusters aren't working as well, which are both clear signs of low fuel.



At this point, NASA is happy with the 2,342 confirmed exoplanets that Kepler has discovered, and are now planning two things: what to do with Kepler in its final moments, and how to replace the space telescope with something also capable of finding that many exoplanets in distant solar systems. 

The replacement is already in the works. In April, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS for short) will be launched into space, and will come equipped with four wide-field cameras to scan over 200,000 nearby or bright stars for signs of exoplanets in their orbits. 

As for old Kepler, we know it won't go the way of the Cassini space probe, which provided some last-minute data on Saturn by crashing into the ringed planet's surface. That was a necessity to prevent Cassini from crashing to one of Saturn's moons and potentially contaminating areas where we're searching for life

Since Kepler is out in the middle of space, we'll be able to make every last drop of fuel count, knowing that it'll drift harmlessly around our solar system once its mission is finally over.
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