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NASA planet-hunting telescope breaks down

May 15, 2013
Special to World Science  

A NASA space­craft de­signed to hunt for Earth-like plan­ets has bro­ken, and agen­cy sci­en­tists don’t know wheth­er they will be able to fix it.

On the oth­er hand, they say, the craft worked for the four years it was de­signed to work for.

Artist's con­cep­tion of the Kep­ler tel­e­scope, which is cur­rent­ly about 40 mil­lion miles away, ac­cord­ing to NA­SA of­fi­cials. The craft looked for plan­ets by watch­ing as they passed in front of their home stars. (Im­age cour­te­sy NA­SA)


The Kep­ler tel­e­scope was the first NASA mis­sion capa­ble of find­ing Earth-size plan­ets in or near the “habita­ble zone,” which is the range of dis­tance from a star where the sur­face tem­per­a­ture of an or­bit­ing plan­et might be suita­ble for liq­uid wa­ter. 

Launched in 2009, Kep­ler has been de­tect­ing plan­ets and plan­et can­di­dates with a wide range of sizes and or­bit­al dis­tances to help sci­en­tists bet­ter un­der­stand our place in the gal­axy.

NASA of­fi­cials said Wednes­day that the Kep­ler space­craft lost the sec­ond of four wheels that con­trol the tel­e­scope’s ori­enta­t­ion in space.

That ren­ders it some­thing like “a beau­ti­ful car” whose “s­teer­ing wheel fell of­f,” said Wil­liam Borucki, Kep­ler sci­ence prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the Ames Re­search Cen­ter in Cal­i­for­nia, at a NASA tele­con­fer­ence on Wednes­day.

But “there is a reasona­ble pos­si­bil­ity that we’ll be able to mit­i­gate the prob­lem,” he said. NASA scient­ists strongly dis­pu­ted the no­tion that the craft is “crippled,” a cha­rac­ter­ization voiced by some re­port­ers in the tele­conf­erence. And they added that it may turn out to be use­ful for other pro­jects. 

Charles Sobeck, the deputy project mana­ger at Ames, said the mis­sion has cost about $600 mil­lion to date.

Borucki said that even as things stand, there is still two years’ worth of da­ta to an­a­lyze, and that sci­en­tif­ic re­sults from the mis­sion might be com­ing out for anoth­er good dec­ade.

“We have cer­tainly found [from Kep­ler] that Earth-sized plan­ets are com­mon, of­ten in habita­ble zones, and around all sorts of stars,” he added. One thing not yet found is a world just like Earth, and si­m­i­larly po­si­tioned around a Sun-like star, he said, but the ex­ist­ing da­ta might well yet re­veal that.

Find­ing the Holy Grail of a per­fectly Earth-like plan­et is probably un­nec­es­sary, as “life could ex­ist over quite a range of star types, dis­tances from a sun and plan­et sizes,” he not­ed.

“I’m frankly de­light­ed we have all this da­ta,” he said. “I would have been even hap­pi­er if it had con­tin­ued for four more years. That would have been frost­ing on the cake, but we have ex­cel­lent cake.”


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A NASA spacecraft designed to hunt for Earth-like planets has broken, and agency scientists don’t know whether they will be able to fix it. On the other hand, they say, the craft worked for the four years it was designed to work for. The Kepler telescope was the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” which is the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet might be suitable for liquid water. Launched in 2009, Kepler has been detecting planets and planet candidates with a wide range of sizes and orbital distances to help scientists better understand our place in the galaxy. NASA officials said Wednesday that the Kepler spacecraft lost the second of four wheels that control the telescope’s orientation in space. That renders it something like “a beautiful car” whose “steering wheel fell off,” said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at the Ames Research Center in California, at a NASA teleconference on Wednesday. But “there is a reasonable possibility that we’ll be able to mitigate the problem,” he said. Borucki added there is still two years’ worth of data to analyze, and that scientific results from the mission might be coming out for another good decade. “We have certainly found [from Kepler] that Earth-sized planets are common, often in habitable zones, and around all sorts of stars,” he added. One thing not yet found is a star just like Earth, and similarly positioned around a Sun-like star, he said, but the existing data might well yet reveal that. Finding the Holy Grail of a perfectly Earth-like planet is probably unnecessary, as “life could exist over quite a range of star types, distances from a sun and planet sizes,” he noted. “I’m frankly delighted we have all this data,” he said. “I would have been even happier if it had continued for four more years. That would have been frosting on the cake, but we have excellent cake.”