"Alien Life Payload?" NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Downloads Exoplanet Science Data

The End Is Nigh for NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope

The decision to put Kepler into the hibernation-like state was due to a recent "indication" that it is "very low" on fuel. According to NASA, May 12 marked the start of Kepler's 18th observational campaign, which involved focusing on the Cancer constellation. Kepler is set to wake up in August for the Deep Space Network time. On August 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 hibernation-like mode will conserve fuel in preparation for this download period, after which point NASA plans to send Kepler off to make more observations. "In our case, there is no next station, so we want to stop collecting data while we're still comfortable that we can aim the spacecraft to bring it back to Earth", the space agency added. Until this time, Kepler will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode. That mission will continue for however long the fuel lasts; the space agency expects this to be "in the next few months".

The $600 million Kepler mission launched in March 2009, with the goal of helping astronomers determine just how common Earth-like planets are throughout the Milky Way galaxy. The planet-hunting spacecraft was placed into hibernation safe mode past Monday to prepare for the downloading of the science data collected during the observatory's latest observation campaign.

In 2013, Kepler's primary mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke, rendering it unable to hold its gaze steady at the original field of view. Engineers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, however, and in 2014, the spacecraft embarked on an extended mission known as K2.

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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.

But scientists now know that its life is coming to end very soon. 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.

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