As TESS Launch Approaches, Kepler Mission Ending as Fuel Runs Low

Bad news from NASA regarding the venerable Kepler/K2 mission: it is running out of fuel and preparations are being made for the final end - for real this time - of the mission that showed us there were more planets in our galaxy than stars.

3024 Views | Published on 13th Apr, 2018

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. In this episode, we received some bad news from NASA regarding the venerable Kepler/K2 mission: it is running out of fuel and preparations are being made for the final end - for real this time - of the mission that showed us there were more planets in our galaxy than stars.

As we eagerly await the launch of the TESS Mission early next week, we are getting ready to say goodbye to a venerable old friend that taught us just how common planets in our galaxy are.

In this case, the old friend is the Kepler Space Telescope, later renamed K2 after a reaction wheel failed and prevented Kepler from continuing its primary science mission.

NASA reports that the spacecraft is running out of fuel and on borrowed time. It’s hard to believe but it has been up there nine years and it’s been so successful in part because back in 2013 when Kepler’s primary mission ended due to a second reaction wheel breaking and making it unable to hold its pointing steady at the original field of view, the spacecraft was given a new lease on life by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing.

Reborn as “K2,” this extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months in what is referred to as a “campaign.” Initially, the Kepler team estimated that the K2 mission could conduct 10 campaigns with the remaining fuel. It turns out we were overly conservative. The mission has already completed 16 campaigns, and this month entered its 17th.

But now K2 faces a hard deadline that can’t be fixed: NASA estimates that the spacecraft has several months of fuel left onboard and when it’s gone, there’s nothing left to be done. The spacecraft will no longer be able to change pointing as it orbits the Sun, following Earth around some 94 million miles behind us.

They don’t have a gas gauge, so they are using fuel pressure readings to estimate how much is left and they can’t be precise about how much longer K2 will be able to take science data.

Many NASA missions must set a course for a clear-cut ending and reserve enough fuel for one last maneuver. For example, Earth-orbiting spacecraft must avoid collisions with other satellites or an uncontrolled fall to the ground, while planetary missions like Cassini have to reserve fuel to avoid contamination of a potentially life-bearing environment. In Cassini’s case, NASA sent the spacecraft into Saturn rather than risk it falling into one of the planet’s moons.

Deep space missions like Kepler are nowhere near Earth or sensitive environments, which means we can afford to squeeze every last drop of data from the spacecraft — and ultimately that means bringing home even more data for science. Who knows what surprises about our universe will be in that final downlink to Earth?

For my part, I put the Kepler mission right up there in importance with the Hubble Space Telescope. Like Hubble, the Kepler Space Telescope caused a paradigm shift in how we view our place in the universe, something that no amount of money can buy. As Kepler winds down and we begin to turn on TESS, the golden age of astronomy continues and a new era of discovery awaits us.

So, thank you Kepler, for providing a window into the cosmos that changed the way humanity looks at itself forever.

Well that’s it for this episode Space Fans, thanks to all of you who support Deep Astronomy by liking and sharing our videos and for your financial support, we continue because of you.

Thanks to all of you for watching and as always Keep Looking Up!

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