Subscribe

Can NASA save its planet-hunting Kepler telescope?

NASA's Kepler space observatory, which has detected more than 1,000 planets outside our solar system, entered 'emergency mode' on Thursday, and NASA scientists are scrambling to diagnose the problem.

  • close
    Artist's illustration of NASA's Kepler space telescope, which has discovered more than 1,000 exoplanets since its March 2009 launch.
    NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption
of

NASA's prolific Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft appears to be in trouble.

Kepler's handlers learned during a routine contact on Thursday (April 7) that the space telescope — which has discovered more than 1,000 alien planets since its March 2009 launch — is now in "emergency mode" (EM).

"EM is the lowest operational mode and is fuel intensive. Recovering from EM is the team's priority at this time," Kepler mission manager Charlie Sobeck, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, wrote in a mission update Friday (April 8). "The mission has declared a spacecraft emergency, which provides priority access to ground-based communications at the agency's Deep Space Network."

The last regular contact with Kepler occurred on April 4, and the spacecraft was healthy and operating properly at that time, Sobeck added.

It could take some time to diagnose and fix the problem, because Kepler orbits the sun rather than Earth, and there is thus a significant time delay in communications. At the moment, it takes 13 minutes for a signal to travel the nearly 75 million miles (121 million kilometers) from mission control to Kepler and back again, Sobeck wrote.

Kepler spots alien planets by noting the telltale brightness dips they cause when they cross their host stars' faces from the telescope's perspective. The $600 million mission has been incredibly successful; to date, Kepler has detected 1,041 confirmed exoplanets — more than half of all known alien worlds — as well as about 3,600 additional "candidate" planets, the vast majority of which will likely be confirmed eventually.

But Kepler has run into trouble before. In May 2013, the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed, ending the spacecraft's original planet hunt.

Mission managers soon figured out a way to stabilize Kepler's position in space using the remaining two reaction wheels and sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft embarked upon a new mission called K2. During K2, Kepler has continued to search for exoplanets but is also studying other cosmic objects and phenomena, such as the exploding stars known as supernovae.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

Editor's Recommendations

Copyright 2016 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome
 
 
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
 

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK