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After Nearly A Decade, NASA Retires Planet-Hunting Spacecraft

Rendering of Kepler at work. Photo: NASA

After discovering more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, NASA has retired its exoplanet-hunting spacecraft. The telescope ran out of fuel.

The Kepler space telescope spent the past nine years staring at distant stars, looking for signs of planets. The mission found thousands of potential planets, some that could be very similar to Earth, with the possibility of liquid water and signs of life.

“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.”

Scientists analyzing Kepler data say that 20 to 50 percent of the stars in the night sky are likely to have small, rocky planets similar to the size of Earth located in the so-called habitability zone of their parent starts. That means they’re located at an area that would allow liquid water on the surface — a key to life as we know it.

A new telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, launched in April will expand on Kepler’s work. With a wider view of the sky, it could discover even more planets. Scientists are just getting the first downloads of data from that telescope.

“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results”

Kepler launched from Cape Canaveral in 2009. The spacecraft will stay in space in a safe orbit, away from Earth.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »