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NASA's Planetary Space Telescope is about to go out



By Mark Austin

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  Kepler Exoplanets
NASA

NASA

The Kepler Space Telescope is running empty and there are no places to fill when you're 94 is million kilometers from Earth.

On August 2, the ship is awakened from hibernation (NASA describes it as a non-fuel condition) and instructed to direct its antenna to Earth. Over a period of four days, Kepler will download data during the planned Deep Space Network time. Assuming that the repositioning and data transmission are successful, Kepler will continue his observations with residual fuel until he closes his eyes forever.

Kepler's time has come to an end since March 201

8, when Charlie Sobeck, an engineer from the Kepler Mission, announced in an update that the end was near for the nine-year-old Deep Space Observatory. "At this rate, the sturdy spacecraft can reach its finish line in a way that we will see as a wonderful success," he wrote. "Without a gas station in space, the spacecraft will run out of fuel, and we expect to reach that moment within a few months."

On July 6, 2018, four months before the start, the Kepler team advanced NASA put the spacecraft to sleep mode to prepare for the final download of the scientific data. Earlier ads in the week when the tank was very empty resulted in a shift in status.

Kepler was launched on March 6, 2009 on an originally three-and-a-half-year mission. The spacecraft was placed in sun orbit and followed the earth as it orbited the sun to locate earth-sized planets orbiting distant stars.

The Kepler telescope, of course, can not "see" these distant planets. Rather, it seeks variations in the light as a planet drives past its star and produces a tiny pulse. Repeated observations can detect the size and orbit of the planet.

Kepler has discovered hundreds of exoplanets in the past nine years. Their mission could have ended in 2013, when a spacecraft reaction wheel broke and it could not hold its position against the earth.

The new Kepler K2 mission began to use the pressure of sunlight to maintain its alignment. Like steering into the flow at a river, the new technique allows the telescope to shift its field of view every three months for a new observation. The team initially estimated that the spaceships could complete ten of these "campaigns" before completing their mission, but it is already on its 17th.

The fuel Kepler uses is hydrazine monopropellant, like Sobeck in a podcast explained about the mission. "It's just a liquid that ignites when it goes through the engines, and there's thrust," he said. "It's under pressure in the tank, and that's what drives it into the thrusters, down fuel lines just like you have your wires in your car."

One of the challenges is the data already stored on the data recorder. The last drops of fuel are used to turn the spacecraft so that its parabolic shell faces the earth. "The data for which we have spent so much time and effort, we want to bring to the ground," said Sobeck. "It does not help us if it lives on the spaceship forever, we need to bring it to the ground."

Although this could be the end of Kepler, a new planet hunter is expected to fly into the sky this spring. TESS (Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is launched aboard a SpaceX rocket to study the 200,000 brightest stars near the Sun after exoplanets.

Updated on July 28 with news about the hibernation mode and scheduled data download.

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