NASA Puts Kepler Back On the Hunt For Distant Worlds

An illustration of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ball

On the hunt for alien worlds, NASA has approved a new mission for the Kepler spacecraft, despite a crippling breakdown in 2013 that seemed to mark the end of its work forever. (See: “New Role for Disabled Kepler?”)

Launched in 2009, the original $600 million Kepler mission discovered more than half of all known planets orbiting nearby stars—some 962 worlds. But malfunctions last year left the spacecraft with only two of its gyroscopic steering wheels operating, and it became impossible for NASA to point the craft accurately in three dimensions.

It seemed the telescope had become a dead project.

More recently, however, mission managers came up with a plan to make use of solar winds to help keep the craft on course, and won approval for a new $20-million, two-year “K2” mission to continue their research.

Kepler looks for “transits”—or faint dips in light that happen when planets partially eclipse their host stars. The K2 mission will mainly be hunting planets orbiting small red dwarf stars and very bright stars amenable to follow-up research from other telescopes.

“We’re really excited,” says Kepler deputy program manager Charlie Sobeck of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

A February demonstration of the K2 mission’s proposed steering plan revealed excellent stargazing accuracy and likely helped sell the mission to NASA, Sobeck says.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

  • D Kirby

    Not a comment; however, a question I hope someone with an engineering background might answer for me. Often when space objects break down, or wear out (i.e., Hubble, as well as Kepler) gyroscopes are the cause.
    I understand both the purposes and workings of a gyroscope, but are they particularly delicate or prone to early wear? Thank you.

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