Friday, 18 January, 2019

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

Histogram_Chart_of_Discovered_Exoplanets_as_of Image by Wikipedia
Sandy Nunez | 02 November, 2018, 16:17

The Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel and will be retired after a 9-1/2-year mission in which it detected thousands of planets beyond our solar system and boosted the search for worlds that might harbour alien life, Nasa said on Tuesday. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison. Now that it's out of fuel, NASA made a decision to officially retire the spacecraft, letting it float in a safe orbit far from Earth.

Kepler was succeeded by Nasa's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which was launched in April. If the transit occurs regularly, with the same frequency, we can conclude that it is not just randomly flying past a celestial body, a planet orbiting a parent star. NASA announced it would "retire" Kepler as a result. "It was an extremely clever approach to doing this kind of science", said Leslie Livesay, director for astronomy and physics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who served as Kepler project manager during mission development. Kepler data suggests another 2,899 potential planets that ground-based astronomers will continue to study and determine if they are, in fact, planets.

"It has changed the very understanding of our place in the Universe".

Every bit of scientific data collected by Kepler was transmitted to scientists on Earth, and exciting discoveries based on the last bits of data are yet to come, NASA said.

TESS will short-list the distant worlds through most likely to be harbor life - with subsequent follow-up using JWST instrumentation and the coming generation of 30 m-class ground telescopes to look for signs of life.

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Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said Kepler "wildly exceeded all our expectations" and "sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm..."

Many theories and experiments aspire to transform our view of the universe, but the Kepler mission actually did so.

Nasa's new space observatory, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess, has already taken up the search for planets in the nearby cosmos, and giant telescopes both on the ground and in space are being created to detect and observe exoplanets - planets that circle stars outside our solar system. The device has been in space for nine years. They dubbed this new mission K2, which found another 354 planets, with 473 additional candidates awaiting confirmation today. JWST will take pictures in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes yet ideal for studying planets through the clouds of gas and dust in space that typically obscure distant worlds.

Dotson noted, "We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries". "Repeatable performance is critical, as Kepler will have to make measurements of a star's brightness and then return to it perhaps a year later to take another brightness measurement", he explained.