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  • Kepler could be kaput

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2013

The Kepler space telescope has discovered 132 planets since its launch in 2009, but now it appears to be on life support, NASA said in late May. Kepler had successfully completed its primary mission and in November had entered an extended phase.

The telescope is in a heliocentric, or sun-centered, orbit about 40 million miles from Earth that afforded it an unblocked view but prevents sending a repair team. It must execute a 90° roll every three months to reposition its solar panels to face the sun while keeping the instrument aimed at the target field of view. That was accomplished with the help of its reaction wheels; however, two of those four wheels have now failed.

Kepler is currently in safe mode and has a few months of fuel left, but with only two wheels, NASA says, the spacecraft probably will not be returned to the high pointing accuracy that enables its high-precision photometry. But no decision has yet been made to end data collection.

Even if the telescope stops collecting data, there is still enough that has yet to be fully analyzed to potentially lead to more discoveries for years to come, NASA said.

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