Ever since its launch in 2009, the Kepler Telescope has traveled 94 million miles and survived just about anything that could go wrong, from mechanical failures to being bombarded by cosmic rays. For nine years, the Kepler Telescope has searched for Earth-like exoplanets orbiting around distant stars, an endeavor that has proven quite fruitful up until now. However, its luck may have run out as NASA just announced that the spacecraft’s fuel reserves are going to be depleted within the next few months.
The Kepler Telescope’s primary function right now is to reposition itself and take photographs of distant pockets of space. This will soon end once fuel runs out.
Back in 2013, Kepler’s first mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke which made the telescope unable to focus on the original field of view. The spacecraft was then given a second chance by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, something akin to somebody swimming against the current. Thus Kepler commenced its second mission called “K2”.
However, the K2 mission requires the telescope to reposition itself every three months, an action referred to as a “campaign”. NASA estimated that Kepler could survive about ten campaigns before it finally ran out of fuel. Surprisingly, the spacecraft managed to power through to its 17th campaign.
According to NASA, there no direct way of telling how much fuel remains in Kepler’s tanks, however, the fuel tank’s pressure is dropping and the thrusters are not responding properly, both clear signs of low fuel.
The telescope has managed to capture 2,342 confirmed exoplanets. While NASA couldn’t be happier with the Kepler, they are already developing a replacement. The new would-be Kepler spacecraft is called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will be launched into space in April. This new and improved telescope will be outfitted with four wide-field cameras to scan over 200 thousand nearby or bright stars for signs of exoplanets in their orbits.
Image Source: Nasa.gov