NASA Retires Its Planet Hunter, the Kepler Space Telescope

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out of fuel

Enlarge NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has run out

"We have shown that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy", Borucki said. "Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars", said Zurbuchen.

NASA announced Tuesday that Kepler, an orbital telescope that's been spotting and analyzing distant planets for the past nine years, has run out of fuel and will no longer carry out scientific research.

Project scientist Jessie Dotson, who works at NASA's Ames Research Centre in California, told Space.com: "Kepler has taught us that planets are ubiquitous and incredibly diverse".

"The Kepler mission has been an enormous success", said Bill Borucki, the original Kepler principal investigator and leader of the team that convinced NASA to build and launch the $692 million mission in 2009. "Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that's full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy". When scientists factored those finds into statistical formulas that take Kepler's limitations into account, they concluded that 20 to 50 percent of the Milky Way's stars may have rocky planets in habitable zones. Take, for example, Kepler-22b, which he calls one of the most interesting planets in the batch.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will also keep a keen eye on exoplanets, even possibly going so far as to peer into the atmospheres of these worlds to understand if they might be habitable.

Now orbiting the sun 94 million miles (156 million km) from Earth, the spacecraft will drift further from our planet when mission engineers turn off its radio transmitters, the USA space agency said. The distinction helped scientists zero in on potential Earth-like planets and better the odds for finding life.

The $700 million mission led to the discovery of more than 2,600 of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets or planets outside our solar system that have been documented in the past two decades.

Discoveries like these have forced scientists to stop assuming that our solar system is like those all around us, added Padi Boyd, the project scientist for Kepler's successor mission, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

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There was a lot of malfunction that happened with steering and dwindling hydrazine fuel levels costing $600 million spacecraft which stayed in action nearly for nine years and with 19 observation campaigns which are longer than its original four-year mission.

The end came just a few months shy of the 10th anniversary of Kepler's 2009 launch.

The resurrected mission became known as K2 and yielded 350 confirmed exoplanets. "One of the common kinds of planets that Kepler detected are planets that are larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune, a type of planet that doesn't exist in our own solar system".

"Because of Kepler, what we think about our place in the universe has changed", Hertz said.

Kepler used a detection method called transit photometry, which looked for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light of stars caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them.

Nasa says Kepler's mission may be over but its discoveries will be studied for years to come.

"That's the path Kepler has put us on", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Planetary exploration is going through a wider-ranging changing of the guard: For example, NASA's Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres is ending, due to the same empty-tank issue that Kepler faced.

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