NASA is retiring its Kepler space telescope because it's run out of fuel after almost a decade spent hunting several thousand planets beyond our solar system.
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.
Engineers noticed that the spacecraft was running low on fuel in June of this year (2018) and worked to ensure that the data on board was safely sent back to Earth.
But the innovative spacecraft enjoyed an illustrious career, discovering as many as 2,600 planets and inspiring new fields of research, NASA said.
"The Kepler mission has been an enormous success", said Bill Borucki, the original Kepler principal investigator and leader of the team that convinced NASA to build and launch the $692 million mission in 2009.
The most recent analysis of Kepler data suggests that as many as 50 percent of visible stars have small, possibly rocky planets located within their habitable zone.
This artist's concept obtained October 30, 2018, courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle shows Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone.
Kepler was NASA's first planet hunting mission, one it didn't expect to last as long as it did.
Launched in March 2009, the space observatory (named after astronomer Johannes Kepler) was created to assess some 150,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus. Over the life of the mission, more than 100,000 of those stars were actively monitored by Kepler. It has helped astronomers measure potential planets as they passed in front of stars, refining the search for those that might harbour water and be capable of supporting life.
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Fuel supplies of Kepler ran out two weeks ago leaving the telescope unable to function.
Kepler has overcome mechanical difficulties in the past.
The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA's newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April. "It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a vehicle headlight, when the auto was 100 miles away", William Borucki, retired Kepler principal investigator said in a press conference today.
Planetary exploration is going through a wider-ranging changing of the guard: For example, NASA's Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres is ending, due to the same empty-tank issue that Kepler faced. However, while Kepler spent its prime mission looking at a single, very small region of the sky, TESS is performing an all-sky survey focused on the nearest and brightest stars.
Such data has allowed scientists to better interpret stellar behavior and properties-critical to the study of stars and the planets that orbit them.
Both missions, with their vastly distinct data sets, have given scientists here on Earth a lot to think about. This type of planet does not exist in our solar system.
"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", according to Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at the Ames Research Center.
"Before we launched Kepler, we didn't know if planets were common or rare in our galaxy", he said.
"The Kepler mission has paved the way for future exoplanet studying missions". He's excited for what we may one day learn about the Kepler-444 system in particular, he said.