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The end is nigh for NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope

10 July 2018

(The Deep Space Network is the global array of radio telescopes that NASA uses to communicate with its far-flung spacecraft.) "Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode", they added.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Kepler space telescope, which has discovered about 70 percent of all known exoplanets to date. "We even have plans to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself", the NASA announcement said. The team has paused the spacecraft's planet-hunting science observations and placed it in a hibernation-like state to prepare to download the science data collected during its most recent observation campaign.

Kepler has been on its 18th observation since May 12 of this year (2018), studying a cluster of stars near the constellation of Cancer that the spacecraft had previously observed in 2015.

"The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can't aim the spacecraft for data transfer". Returning the data back to Earth is the highest priority for the remaining fuel. The space- based telescope is now stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode.

The Kepler team will wake up the spacecraft on August 2 and maneuver it to the correct orientation to downlink the data.

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Launched in 2009, Kepler has endured mechanical failures and other mishaps. Four wheels rotate in the gyroscope to provide a reaction that allows the necessarily precision in tracking, and two of the four failed by May 2013.

Once the data has been downloaded, the expectation is to start observations for the next campaign with any remaining fuel, the announcement added. The team will start its 19th observation campaign on August 6 if the download is successful. So far, it has provided data that scientists have used to confirm the existence of 2,650 exoplanets in a field of over 150,000 stars that it's examining.

It turns out scientists were overly conservative in their estimate.

NASA in April launched another planet-hunting spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess). The mission has already completed 17 campaigns, and since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign.

After the Kepler space telescope, Tess is the second spacecraft which will search for planets outside our solar system, including those that could support life.

The end is nigh for NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope