NASA Ames scientists hoping to save Kepler

May 16, 2013 6:16:18 PM PDT
A rescue mission is under way near at the NASA Ames research center in Mountain View where scientists are trying to save their prized Kepler spacecraft. The Kepler telescope has discovered thousands of planets in just four years but right now, it's not doing anything and scientists aren't sure if it ever will again.

The Kepler telescope has to be positioned very precisely and the mechanism that does that positioning is broken. Fortunately, the Kepler has already completed its primary mission and is now in its "extended science period."

The telescope was launched in 2009. It was to head into the final frontier looking for planets like Earth. "We have found thousands of planetary candidates, confirmed over 100. We have 280 Earth-size planets. We have 850 planets that are about twice the size of earth," NASA Ames space scientist William Borucki said. Borucki is the father of the Kepler. He wrote the first proposal in 1984.

The telescope has to be held in place with extreme precision, with something called "reaction wheels." One failed last year. Another failed last week and now, the Kepler mission is now on hold. "Right now, we've saved the spacecraft so it won't lose all its fuel or be pointed at the sun and destroyed. So, we've done that. We're checking it out. That will finish up probably in a few days," Borucki said.

Borucki says teams of clever scientists from NASA Ames, JPL, and the wheel manufacturer will be assembled sometime in the next few weeks to see if the Kepler can be fixed. If not, the it will have successfully gathered four years' worth of data and redrawn our understanding of the universe, answering the question whether earth-like planets are common or rare.

"If the answer is they're very rare, then we might be alone. There's no need for Star Trek or other missions. If on the other hand, there are a lot of them, then you can build an instrument designed to look at the nearest planets," Borucki explained.

"Well, Kepler has been a stunning success. It has changed our view of the universe. People now know there are planets just about everywhere out there, almost around every sun," says former NASA Ames Director Scott Hubbard.

Scientists will begin trying to repair the Kepler in a few weeks but even if it can't be fixed


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