Down, but not out?

By now you have heard the Kepler space telescope is in trouble.  It may have to cease operations soon.


There won’t be any repair mission because a) we no longer have any operational shuttles and b) and even if we did, Kepler is about 40 million miles (64 million kilometers) from Earth in a Heliocentric orbit (i.e. it orbits the Sun, not the Earth).

So, what went wrong.  Kepler needs to be pointed with extreme accuracy to point its 1.5 meter mirror.  To do that, there are four reaction wheels that make up a sort of gyroscope keeping Kepler pointed to the exact same spot in space.

One of the four reaction wheels was overheating, so in January of this year NASA shut the whole thing down for ten days to try and cool the reaction wheels off.  It didn’t work.  Kepler could continue with three reaction wheels (redundancy, redundancy, redundancy).  However, it now appears that a second reaction wheel is now failing.

All is not lost however.  Kepler is currently on an extended mission.  The original end date for the project was over a year ago.  NASA agreed to fund the project until 2016, if the equipment lasted that long.  Kepler was launched in 2009 in search of Earth-like planets. So far, it has confirmed 132 planets and spotted more than 2,700 potential ones.  It will take scientists years to figure out all the data.

Considering the very small area of the Milky Way that Kepler was looking at, and the advances made in exoplanet discovery.  I think Kepler was a rousing success.  Too bad it can’t go on.

“I wouldn’t call Kepler down and out yet,” said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and Hubble repairman who is NASA’s associate administrator for space science, at a news conference.

Well, hopefully he is right and more planets are discovered.  Kepler II anyone? NASA? NASA?

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +