NASA says aging Kepler Space Telescope could have enough fuel to complete one last mission

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NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope still has some life left in it.   

The aging exoplanet hunter is now awake after a four-week hibernation period and transmitting data back to Earth. 

It comes as NASA has warned that the spacecraft is dangerously low on fuel and could be approaching the end of its useful life. 

 

The agency had paused all science observations and placed Kepler into a hibernation-like state to preserve its already dwindling fuel levels.

Now, Kepler is using its remaining thruster fuel to send vital observational data back home.

‘Kepler made contact yesterday and is successfully downloading its store of science data from its latest observation campaign,’ NASA wrote in a tweet. 

Kepler has completed 18 missions since it embarked on its K2 phase, or an extension of its original mission, collecting information about many far-flung planets.

To transmit the data, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and send information during its allotted Deep Space Network time.

The Deep Space Network is NASA’s international system of radio antennas that are equipped to pick up data from the agency’s interplanetary missions.

Kepler’s DSN window opened Thursday, Space.com noted. 

If the spacecraft is able to send information back to Earth, NASA may be able to use Kepler for a 19th mission.

This would be a remarkable feat considering Kepler was only expected to complete 10 missions in its K2 phase. 

In 2013, Kepler’s primary mission was concluded when a second reaction wheel broke, which meant that the space craft couldn’t hold a steady gaze at its original field of view.

But Kepler was soon given a ‘new lease on life,’ as NASA gave the spacecraft a new mission, dubbed ‘K2.’

This required the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky about every three months, Sobeck noted. 

Kepler began its 18th observation campaign on May 12 and has been aimed at a ‘patch of sky towards the constellation Cancer,’ NASA said. 

It previously observed this area in 2015, but by giving it a second look, scientists will review and confirm both new and old exoplanet candidates.  

‘As engineers preserve the new data stored on the spacecraft, scientists are continuing to mine existing data already on the ground,’ the agency continued.

‘Among other findings, recently 24 new planet discoveries were made using data from the 10th observation campaign, adding to the spacecraft’s growing bounty of 2,650 confirmed planets.’

For now, scientists will continue to closely monitor Kepler’s fuel levels, but it’s expected that the aging spacecraft will run out of gas in the near future. 

Luckily, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is fully operational, completing a lunar flyby in May.

In its first year of operation, it will map the 13 sectors that make up the southern sky.

The James Webb Telescope will also be able to peer into other galaxies once it launches in 2021.   

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