NASA has put its most renowned planet-hunting probe by far, the Kepler space telescope, on hold to download science data gathered from 51 days of its observation mission because Kepler’s fuel tanks are running low. Provided that the fuel levels permit, NASA will resume the probe after the download is done, but it seems a far cry, given the already low fuel levels.
On a striking note, the telescope has outlived its 1-year mission by reaching its 9th year in space but is nevertheless nearing its exhaustion. NASA Kepler spacecraft has fought some technical problems over these years, such as broken parts and a sudden switch to “emergency mode”, and won over them to maintain its longstanding venture in space.
However, the Kepler team of NASA took to Twitter today to inform the world of their decision to put a pause on Kepler, stating:
‘We’ve paused science observations for @NASAKepler to download recent science data after receiving an indication that the spacecraft is very low on fuel as expected. Our team is monitoring the fuel closely as we expect to run out in the next few months
Following indication of decreasing fuel levels in the spacecraft earlier this week, the team has placed it in a hibernation-like state to facilitate the download of the science data gathered in its latest observation mission, which happens to be its 18th observation campaign ( which kick-started May 12) observing a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer it studied back in 2015. The data from this second look is important for confirming exoplanet entities and discovering new ones by the astronomers, and so the remaining fuel has to be put to use to make it reach the Earth.
To this end, Kepler’s large antenna is to be pointed back to Earth to enable the data transmission during the allotted Deep Space Network time slated in early August. Till then, it will be kept stable and in no-fuel-use safe mode.
As per the plan, the team will maneuver the spacecraft from its current no-fuel-use-state to the proper orientation and downlink the data, on August 2, and following its successful execution, the team will go for its 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the remaining fuel.
After the download, NASA will post an update. Meanwhile, scientists are working on the existing data on the ground simultaneously as the engineers are preserving the new data collected on the spacecraft. It can, therefore, be pleasantly anticipated that the team will add to the findings of 24 new planets discovered from the 10th observation campaign. It is being assumed that the remaining data to be analyzed should yield 100 more planets.
As of now, Kepler has already gathered data confirming as many as 2,650 planets, which is a jaw-dropping spate of discoveries in the domain of space science, and explains why it is the most active and prolific planet-hunting spacecraft till date.
Although Kepler has been put to sleep mode, for the time being, NASA won’t hibernate its mission of exploring the galaxy as it launched its TESS spacecraft in April to search for planets orbiting around stars that are close to our sun.
And at the outset, all we can say to the brilliant Kepler team is: ‘Way to go!’