NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Spacecraft Is Running Out Of Fuel

Posted: Mar 17 2018, 12:25pm CDT | by , Updated: Mar 17 2018, 1:05pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
NASA Planet-Hunting Kepler Spacecraft is Running Out of Fuel
Credit: NASA

The most successful planet-hunting mission is expected end within months

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has suffered many blows throughout its nine-year long journey but now it’s official: the most successful planet-hunting telescope so far is running out of fuel and its future is very much up for debate.

Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable planets outside our solar system and has been able to discover more than 2,300 exoplanets to date. In 2013, a mechanical failure halted its operation and its primary mission had to end. However, the mission was repurposed as K2 by changing its field of view and is searching for Earth-like exoplanets even today. Initially, the Kepler team estimated that the K2 mission will last no more than 10 campaigns with the remaining fuel. However, the mission has already completed 16 campaigns and this month entered its 17th.

Since the mission is nearing the end, researchers are hoping to receive more valuable data from Kepler as long as its fuel allows.

“Without a gas gauge, we have been monitoring the spacecraft for warning signs of low fuel— such as a drop in the fuel tank's pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters. But in the end, we only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements helps us decide how long we can comfortably keep collecting scientific data.” NASA statement reads.

Kepler discovers distant planets by looking at their discrete signals - dips in light as something crosses in front of a host star. These fluctuations in brightness hints at the presence of massive objects like exoplanets, which are then examined more closely in order to confirm their nature.

Kepler mission will be followed by Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will be launching on April 16 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. TESS will use the same method and search nearly the entire sky for planets beyond our solar system, focusing on the brightest stars less than 300 light-years away.

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