NASA Retires Kepler Telescope, the Most Prolific Planet Hunter of All Time

NASA  Ames  Wendy Stenzel

NASA Ames Wendy Stenzel

The planet-hunting space telescope discovered thousands of alien worlds around distant stars since its launch in 2009. "(...) Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe", Zurbuchen added.

The information received from Kepler was made accessible to the public and resulted in a phenomenal explosion in citizen science - hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world helped sift through the data, revealing exoplanets that others (and other computers) had missed. An entirely new class of planets not present in our solar system, super-Earths with sizes between those of Earth and Neptune, is one of Kepler's most significant discoveries. The knowledge that there are planets scattered everywhere opens almost endless possibilities, and keeps pushing expectations for Kepler's successor TESS and other upcoming missions.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered everything from a cosmic bat shadow to a skull and crossbones nebula, so among all the spooky images it's nice to spot a friendly face. Some of these include rocky planets in their stars' habitable zones, where temperatures allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.

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But the mission was not without its hiccups - in 2013, mechanical failures stopped Kepler's observations. Indeed, one challenge for astronomers who want to study the properties of Kepler planets is that Kepler itself is often the best instrument to use. The new mission was dubbed K2.

The Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes or MAST at the Space Telescope Science Institute will make the data accumulated over almost a decade of deep space observation available to the public. These data will enable new scientific discoveries for years to come. Kepler's demise was "not unexpected and this marks the end of spacecraft operations", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA, on a conference call with reporters.

Both spacecraft used chemical fuel to twist themselves back toward Earth and beam their findings home; without that fuel there was no way to learn from our distant emissaries. Kepler's more advanced successor is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), whose launch has been delayed to 2021, will be capable of studying the atmospheres of planets discovered by TESS and identifying their chemical compositions. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

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