Earlier this year, NASA announced that its prolific planet-finder, the Kepler Observatory, would continue to be funded through 2015, far beyond the mission’s design life. With that announcement, scientists on the team, the science community in general, and space enthusiasts worldwide rejoiced. Now, there’s a problem: Kepler maybe dead..
A few weeks ago, it was reported that Kepler was facing dire technical problems as its ‘reaction wheels,’ which help keep the observatory properly orientated in space, were failing. To stay pointed in the right direction, Kepler needs three functioning wheels. Launched with a spare, one of Kepler’s wheels failed in 2012, meaning the mission could be finished if Kepler were to lose another.
Problem: yesterday, a second wheel failed.
Speaking on the problem, NASA science chief John Grunsfeld stated that “this is something that we’ve been expecting for a while, unfortunately.” However, Grunsfeld added that Kepler is “not down and out just yet.”
The biggest problem: the Kepler team has already determined that there is no way to fix the problem in itself. One ray of hope: there is a chance that the Kepler team could power the wheels and force them to turn, buying the mission a little more time. Should this attempt fail, Kepler may not be completely dead as the team could use it as a scanning rather than a staring observatory.
In recent years, it is the search for rocky extrasolar planets in their parent stars’ habitable zones that has been the focus for astronomers. Thanks to advances in technology, exemplified by Kepler, that allow for the measurement of stars’ brightness to almost unimaginable sensitivities, this can now be done as these Earth-sized planets were simply impossible to detect with the older Doppler Shift technology that was used to find the first extrasolar planets, all of which were Jupiter-sized giants.
To date, Kepler has found over 2,700 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 120 have been confirmed to exist but mission scientists estimate that, in time, over 90% of these potential planets will be confirmed as real. The interesting trend in these findings: Earth-like planets are being found at ever-increasing frequency and that smaller (Neptune and smaller-sized) planets are more numerous than Jupiter-like worlds. While certainly not being the fingerprint of an alien civilization, Kepler’s discoveries are interesting in that it is now known that very inviting, Earth-like planets, can exist throughout the reaches of space.
In the end, no matter what happens with the observatory itself, it will have a rich legacy of discovery that is sure to keep scientists busy for years to come.
For more info:
Hit the ‘subscribe’ button for automatic email updates when I write something new!
Want to read more of my stuff? Check out my other Examiner columns!
Cleveland Astronomy Examiner
Cleveland Photography Examiner
Want even more? Check out my personal website:
Bodzash Photography & Astronomy