NASA bids goodbye to its first planet-hunting mission Kepler

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Context:

  • NASA has decided to retire its Kepler spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth.
  • Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

Why is Kepler retiring?

  • After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets — more planets even than stars — NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations, as reported in the space agency’s recent release.

How NASAites are remembering Kepler

  • As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
  • Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.

Recent discoveries by Kepler

  • The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 per cent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars.
  • That means they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water — a vital ingredient to life as we know it — might pool on the planet surface.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system — a world between the size of Earth and Neptune — and we have much to learn about these planets.

  • 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.

Passing the planet-hunting torch to TESS

  • The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA’s newest planet-hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April this year.
  • TESS builds on Kepler’s foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 2,00,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth, worlds that can later be explored for signs of life by missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Acknowledging Kepler’s guardians

  • NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley managed the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development.
  • Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, operated the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.