NASA's iconic Kepler space telescope - which has discovered 70 percent of the 3,750 exoplanets known to date - is running so low on fuel that the agency has put it into a hibernation-like state, agency officials announced today (July 6).
Launched in 2009, NASA's famous "planet-hunting" telescope "Kepler" is being put into hibernation as it has nearly run out of fuel.
News Brief: NASA has hit the pause button on observations by its most prolific planet-hunting probe, the Kepler space telescope, so that it can download 51 days' worth science data without interruption.
"Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode", they added.
Since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, staring at a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer it previously studied in 2015.
To bring the data home, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and transmit the data during its allotted Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in early August. "On Aug. 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and maneuver the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data".
"The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can't aim the spacecraft for data transfer". That mission will continue for however long the fuel lasts; the space agency expects this to be "in the next few months". The move has been taken in order to prepare the spacecraft to download the data collected in its latest observation campaign.
The Kepler space telescope, which is now 94 million miles away from Earth, has survived many potential knock-outs during its nine years in flight, from mechanical failures to being blasted by cosmic rays.
The spacecraft was given a new lease on life by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, like a kayak steering into the current.
Initially, the Kepler team estimated that the K2 mission could conduct 10 campaigns with the remaining fuel.
It turns out scientists were overly conservative in their estimate. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched in April 2018, and produced a test image in May. TESS is a massive upgrade, observing nearly 400 times the region of space as Kepler, or about 85% of what's observable from its orbit relative to Earth.