Goodbye, Kepler Space Telescope

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a file image the US space agency's Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel and is being retired after nine years

The US space agency has announced that the Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel and is being retired, having helped discover 2,600 planets, some of which may hold life.

"Kepler opened the gate for mankind's exploration of the cosmos", said retired NASA scientist William Borucki, who led the original Kepler science team.

Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries from outside our Solar System. Kepler was created to survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy to determine the number of sun-like stars that have Earth-size and larger planets, including those that lie in a star's 'habitable zone, ' a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist. The data revealed that planets are plentiful and diverse, planetary systems themselves are diverse, and small, rocky planets similar to Earth within the habitable zone of their stars are common, said Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations.

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Inside the Hazardous Processing Facility at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla., NASA's Kepler spacecraft is placed on a stand for fueling. With a combined catalog of exoplanets discovered by both Kepler and TESS, in the early 2020s, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will then be able to follow-up on the most tantalizing finds. Over the life of the mission, more than 100,000 of those stars were actively monitored by Kepler. Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm.

Fuel supplies of Kepler ran out two weeks ago leaving the telescope unable to function. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.

Continuing with Kepler's work is NASA's Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April to survey an area of the sky 400 times larger than that observed by its predecessor. "It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a vehicle headlight, when the auto was 100 miles away", William Borucki, retired Kepler principal investigator said in a press conference today.

Astronomers were dazzled by the planets it found, including Kepler-22b, probably a water world between the size of Earth and Neptune.

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The observation of so many stars has allowed scientists to better understand stellar behaviors and properties, which is critical information in studying the planets that orbit them. However, while Kepler spent its prime mission looking at a single, very small region of the sky, TESS is performing an all-sky survey focused on the nearest and brightest stars.

"That's the path Kepler has put us on", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler's originally planned $640 million mission went far longer than anticipated, thanks in part to a spacecraft-saving fix that was made in 2013 when a crucial part of the probe's fine-pointing system went out of commission.

Kepler also found planets "completely unlike those in our solar system", he told reporters. Approval for this new phase of Kepler's life was given by NASA on May 16, 2014. "It hit me like a sledgehammer in the chest when Kepler showed us that there really, really are planets out there of all different kinds".

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