NASA's planet-hunter telescope, Kepler, runs out of fuel


Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm.

Kepler's discoveries have shed a new light on mankind's place in the Universe.

NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which discovered more than 2,680 exoplanets orbiting distant stars and allowed scientists to statistically show billions more must exist across the Milky Way, has finally run out of fuel, bringing one of NASA's most scientifically productive projects to an end after an extended nine-and-a-half year mission, mission managers said Tuesday. But more important, Kepler was the first NASA mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of other stars.

"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 Center in California's Silicon Valley. "Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy".

"That means they're located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water - a vital ingredient to life as we know it - might pool on the planet surface". TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April and is the newest planet hunter for NASA. Kepler was created to survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy to determine the number of sun-like stars that have Earth-size and larger planets, including those that lie in a star's 'habitable zone, ' a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist.

NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which helped astronomers discover thousands of exoplanets since its launch almost a decade ago, has ended operations after running out of fuel, the agency announced October 30.

Now 94 million miles from Earth, Kepler should remain in a safe, stable orbit around the sun.

"But what was just as wonderful to me was the implications, contacts, and conversations I had over the years with others about religion, life, the universe, and our home planet Earth", Howell added.

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But while Borucki is fascinated by planets that could potentially host life, he's also struck by the sheer diversity of the more than 600 solar systems Kepler has studied.

There was a lot of malfunction that happened with steering and dwindling hydrazine fuel levels costing $600 million spacecraft which stayed in action nearly for nine years and with 19 observation campaigns which are longer than its original four-year mission.

Tess project scientist Padi Boyd called Kepler's mission "stunningly successful".

Launched atop a Delta 2 rocket on March 14, 2009, Kepler was boosted into an orbit around the sun, trailing the Earth and aiming its 95-megapixel camera at a patch of sky the size of an out-stretched hand near the constellation Cygnus that contains more than 4.5 million detectable stars. The new mission, studying near and bright stars, was dubbed K2.

But he's not just excited about individual worlds - the Kepler mission has identified plenty of solar systems as well, where it has spotted multiple planets orbiting one star.

Kepler used a detection method called transit photometry, which looked for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light of stars caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them. Among its chief insights: that planets far outnumber stars.

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

"That's the path Kepler has put us on", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 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.

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