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02 November 2018, 05:41 | Ross Houston
NASA's Kepler spacecraft dead after discovering thousands of planets
Nasa's retired principal investigator for the Kepler mission, Bill Borucki, described it as an "enormous success". But the innovative spacecraft enjoyed an illustrious career, discovering as many as 2,600 planets and inspiring new fields of research, NASA said. "Some of those, in fact, might be actual water worlds". It also revealed the diversity of planets in our galaxy.
"We're really seeing planets at a wide variety of stellar ages", Dotson said. "Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy". "We're confident that TESS is going to find thousands more planets, just like Kepler did".
Kepler showed that "20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars", Nasa said in a statement. This solution did not restore full functionality-Kepler could subsequently only aim itself for around 83 days at a time-but it did make it possible to start another phase of operations. At present, there are just shy of 4,000 known worlds around other stars, and Kepler is responsible for discovering more than half of them.
Of that total, the science team picked some 300,000 that were the right age, composition and brightness to host Earth-like planets.
The spacecraft's camera was not created to take pictures like other space telescopes. That is, a small dip in the light from a star as the planet passed in front of it.
"It was like trying to find a flea crawling across a headlight when the auto was 100 miles away", Borucki said. Originally positioned to stare continuously at 150,000 stars in one star-studded patch of the sky in the constellation Cygnus, Kepler took the first survey of planets in our galaxy and became the agency's first mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars.
This is the first star system found to have multiple transiting planets.
To make such discoveries, Kepler relied on three spinning "reaction wheels", with a fourth available as a spare, to keep the spacecraft rock-steady during its science observations. While it was operating, Kepler's fuel was used to offset the pressure of sunlight that affects Kepler's ability to point precisely at designated targets.
An artist's impression of a solar system found by the Kepler space telescope. Two weeks ago, it finally exhausted the last of its propellant.
Sobeck said controllers will wait until they have "good visibility" on the Deep Space Network so they can observe that the commands run as planned. But without the fuel needed to conduct further science operations, NASA opted to end the mission. "While this may be a sad event, we're by no means unhappy with the performance of this marvelous machine".
Astronomers were dazzled by the planets it found, including Kepler-22b, probably a water world between the size of Earth and Neptune.
"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", according to Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at the Ames Research Center. "It always did everything we asked of it, and sometimes more".
Launched in April, TESS will build on Kepler's planet-hunting legacy by searching for exoplanets around almost 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to Earth. Kepler watched the very beginning of exploding stars, or supernovae, to gain unprecedented insight about stars and witnessed the death of a solar system.
"Because of Kepler, what we think about our place in the universe has changed", Hertz said.
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