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NASA's Planet Hunting Satellite Running Out Of Fuel

Rendering of Kepler at work. Photo: NASA
Rendering of Kepler at work. Photo: NASA

A NASA planet-hunting mission launched from Florida’s Space Coast is running low on fuel. Program managers are preparing to end the Kepler space telescope’s nearly decade-long mission.

The Kepler space telescope helped astronomers discover more than 2,500 planets that exist outside our solar system including some that might be pretty similar to Earth.

Mission managers discovered the spacecraft is running dangerously low on fuel. Once it’s out, it can’t control where to point its cameras or radio transmitters.

That’s why NASA put Kepler into hibernation. Next month, it will wake up and point it’s antennae towards Earth and transmit all the valuable scientific information on board. If there’s still fuel, scientists will try one more observation.

For some satellites, the last bit of fuel is saved to move into an obit away from other spacecraft or crash land it somewhere to prevent contamination. But because of where Kepler is located, it doesn’t pose a threat, and could hang out in space forever. Managers will give an update on the future of its mission after a scheduled August 4 downlink of data via the Deep Space Network.

Kepler's primary mission was only planned for three years but managers extended the mission and continued searching the skies for more planets.

Kepler launched from Cape Canaveral back in 2009. Over the 9 year mission, the spacecraft has survived mechanical failures and a pelting of cosmic rays. The fact that the end of the mission is due to fuel is a "wonderful success," said Charlie Sobeck, system engineer on the mission. "Who knows what surprises about our universe will be in that final downlink to Earth?"

The mission helped confirm the existence of exoplanets which led to the development of NASA’s newest planet hunting satellite, TESS, which launched earlier this year.

Brendan Byrne is WMFE's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the WMFE newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing WMFE's internship program.

Byrne also hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.
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