The Kepler space telescope's end has finally come

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out of fuel

Enlarge NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out

Kepler showed us that "we live in a galaxy that's teeming with planets, and we're ready to take the next step to explore those planets", she said. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.

NASA made a sad announcement this afternoon: its planet hunting spacecraft Kepler has been retired after running out of fuel.

"When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago, we didn't know of a single planet outside our solar system", said the Kepler mission's founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired from NASA's Ames Research Centre in California's Silicon Valley. "Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy". A new planet-hunter, named TESS, was launched in April and Kepler has been left drifting around the Sun more than a hundred-and-fifty-million kilometres from Earth.

Kepler helped astronomers measure potential planets by glimpsing transits, or moments when planets passed in front of their stars.

Kepler has spent the last nine years in deep space hunting exoplanets that are otherwise hidden from humanity's view. It will be deactivated while in its current orbit of the sun, far from Earth, NASA said.

The final commands have been sent, and the spacecraft will remain a safe distance from Earth to avoid colliding with our planet.

The $700 million mission led to the discovery of more than 2,600 of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets or planets outside our solar system that have been documented in the past two decades.

Several of them are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star - an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for the existence of water, which is considered a key ingredient for life.

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"We saw it drop from 90 psi [pounds per square inch] all the way down to 25 psi" over a few hours, said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Four years into the mission-after all primary objectives were met-mechanical failures temporarily halted Kepler's observations.

"The Kepler mission has paved the way for future exoplanet studying missions". In 2014, NASA announced the K2 "Second Light" extension, which increased the telescope's surveyed star count to more than 500,000.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn't exist in our solar system, however. As of October 29, Kepler had detected 2,681 exoplanets, with an additional 2,899 exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation, said Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA Ames.

The telescope has also been used to take brightness measurements from stars, to help understand their inner workings.

Paul Hertz, NASA astrophysics division director said, "Now, because of Kepler, what we think about the universe has changed, Kepler opened the gate for the exploration of the cosmos". It began science operations in late July, as Kepler was waning, and is looking for planets orbiting 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars to Earth.

"These are small, rocky planets, and they were formed around a star that's some six and a half billion years older than our star, than our own planetary system", Borucki said.

Inside the Hazardous Processing Facility at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla., NASA's Kepler spacecraft is placed on a stand for fueling.

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