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31 October 2018, 07:26 | Edward Lowe
Enlarge NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out
NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which discovered more than 2,680 exoplanets orbiting distant stars and allowed scientists to statistically show billions more must exist across the Milky Way, has finally run out of fuel, bringing one of NASA's most scientifically productive projects to an end after an extended nine-and-a-half year mission, mission managers said Tuesday.
For years, Kepler stared at a fixed area of the sky bridging the constellations Lyra and Cygnus to monitor about 150,000 stars for signs of planets. "But now we know, because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission, that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".
"When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago, we didn't know of a single planet outside our solar system", said the Kepler mission's founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired.
Since that time, NASA changed the craft's mission to adjust to the telescope's new normal, calling the updated mission K2. That number includes about 50 that may be about the same size and temperature as Earth. Kepler was created to survey more than 100,000 stars in our galaxy to determine the number of sun-like stars that have Earth-size and larger planets, including those that lie in a star's 'habitable zone, ' a region where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist.
Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA Headquarters, said the Kepler mission "revolutionized our understanding of our place in the cosmos".
By studying slight changes in the "light curve" produced by planetary transits - comparable to watching a flea creep across a car's headlight at a distance of 100 miles - and the timing of repeated cycles, computer analysis could tease out potential Earth-like worlds in habitable-zone orbits.
Dotson noted, "We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries". Borucki sought to develop what ultimately became Kepler for decades, eventually convincing NASA that a space telescope that could perform precise photometry of thousands of stars, needed to detect the brightness variations caused by transits, was feasible. Engineers realized it was running very low on fuel earlier this summer so extracted the last of the data.
Signals that fuel was almost out were seen two weeks ago.
NASA's Kepler planet-hunting telescope now belongs to the ages, with its fuel completely spent and its instruments shut down - but the planet quest continues, thanks to a treasure trove of downloaded data as well as a new generation of robotic planet-hunters. "While this may be a sad event, we're by no means unhappy with the performance of this marvelous machine".
Now orbiting some 156 million kilometres from Earth, the spacecraft will drift further from our planet after its retirement, the USA space agency said. "Kepler's nine-and-a-half-year flight was more than twice the original target".
NASA's newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April. "It always did everything we asked of it, and sometimes more".
In addition to the confirmed exoplanets it discovered Kepler found an additional 2,900 candidates awaiting vetting, many of which could be confirmed.
The Kepler mission was named in honor of 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion.
NASA scientists are expected to spend the next decade trawling through data provided by Kepler in search of new discoveries.
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