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NASA Gives Up Fixing Kepler Planet-Hunting Telescope

Marcia Dunn
Published: August 16, 2013
Kepler Space Telescope

AP Photo/NASA, File

This artist's rendering provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA called off all attempts to fix its crippled Kepler space telescope Thursday. But it's not quite ready to call it quits on the remarkable, robotic planet hunter.

Officials said they're looking at what science, if any, might be salvaged by using the broken spacecraft as is.

The $600 million Kepler mission has been in trouble since May, unable to point with precision at faraway stars in its quest for other potential Earths. That's when a critical second wheel failed on the spacecraft. The first of four gyroscope wheels broke in 2012. At least three are needed for precise pointing.

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Since it rocketed into space in 2009, Kepler has confirmed 135 exoplanets - planets outside our solar system. It's also identified more than 3,500 candidate planets.

NASA expects to know by year's end whether the mission is salvageable. Kepler is already on an extended quest; its prime, 3 1/2-year mission ended in November.

The spacecraft is 51 million miles from Earth, orbiting the sun.

If nothing else, new discoveries are expected from data collected over the past four years.

"This is not the last you'll hear from Kepler," promised Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics director.

"Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets, including several super-Earths in the habitable zone," said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who heads NASA's science mission office.

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The habitable zone is the distance between a star and planet in which temperatures would permit liquid water and, possibly, life.

"Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon," Grunsfeld said in a news release.

Engineers tried without success, over hundreds of hours, to revive the two disabled wheels. The spacecraft remains stable, with thrusters controlling its pointing with as little fuel as possible.

The costs and benefits of the remainder of this mission will be analyzed; results from a pair of studies are expected this fall, with decisions coming afterward.

(PHOTOS: See a Spacesuit Under an X-Ray Machine)

Kepler's principal investigator, William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said no one knew at the beginning of Kepler's mission whether Earth-size planets were rare and whether Earthlings might be alone.

"Now at the completion of Kepler observations, we know our galaxy is filled to the brim with planets," Borucki said at a news conference. A large portion of these planets are small like Earth, not gas giants like Jupiter, he noted.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of more exoplanets are expected from Kepler findings, Borucki said. He said it would take another three years to analyze the remaining data.

"We literally expect ... the most exciting discoveries are to come in the next few years as we search through all this data," he said.

MORE: Vintage Photos of NASA's Space Programs

Liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour

Liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour

NASA

Billows of smoke and steam infused with the fiery light from space shuttle Endeavour's launch on the STS-127 mission fill NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A. Endeavour lifted off on the mission's sixth launch attempt, on July 15, 2009 at 6:03 p.m. EDT.

  • Liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour
  • Variable Density Tunnel
  • Free-Flight Tunnel
  • NACA Ames 16 foot High Speed Wind Tunnel
  • Ramjet I-40 Engine in Jet Static Lab
  • 19-ft. Pressure Wind Tunnel
  • Double Trouble: May 5, 1951
  • D-558-2 Mounted to P2B-1S Launch Aircraft
  • Bomarc Ram Jet Engine in PSL Tank
  • Free-Falling Body Nose Dives in Desert
  • Pilot Joe Walker and the X-1A
  • XF-92A in Flight
  • The Road to Apollo
  • D-558-2 Dropped from B-29 Mothership
  • X-3 on Lakebed
  • Bumper V-2 Launch
  • Flying Saucer? Aliens?
  • D-558-2 Mounted to P2B-1S Launch Aircraft
  • Vertol VZ-2 (Model 76)
  • Pilot Neil Armstrong in the X-15 #1 Cockpit
  • Pilot Neil Armstrong and X-15
  • Mercury Suit Components
  • John Glenn, Mercury, February 1962
  • Friendship 7
  • Astronaut John Glenn Honored
  • JFK Tour of Kennedy Space Center
  • President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral
  • Explorer XVII Satellite
  • Astronaut Survival Training
  • Scout Project
  • Geological Training
  • Aerial View of Missile Row
  • Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in Flight
  • XB-70A Landing with Drag Chutes Deployed
  • The World's First View of Earth
  • Lunar Landing Training Vehicle
  • Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator
  • Mobile Quarantine Facility with Apollo 11 Crew
  • Ed White, First American Spacewalker
  • Armstrong and Scott with Hatches Open
  • Mission Control Room During Apollo 4 Launch
  • View of Earth From Apollo 8
  • Earthrise: Apollo 8
  • HL-10 on Lakebed with B-52 Flyby
  • The Apollo 9 Astronauts
  • Ling-Temco-Vought XC-142A
  • Schweickart On 'The Porch'
  • Apollo 10 Liftoff with Belgium King and Queen
  • Buzz Aldrin Prepares for Weightlessness
  • Apollo 11 Pre-Launch Activities
  • Apollo 12 Lunar EVA Training
  • Beginning the Mission
  • Apollo 11 Launch
  • Apollo 11 Launch Spectators
  • Apollo 11 Launch Spectators on the Beach
  • Lyndon Johnson Watches the Apollo 11 Liftoff
  • Apollo 11 Liftoff
  • Apollo 12 Mission Image
  • Mission Accomplished
  • Apollo 11 Lunar Module Ascent
  • Apollo 11 Celebration at Mission Control
  • Apollo 12: Conrad Unfurls Flag
  • Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base
  • Apollo 11 Mission Image
  • Earth's Crest Over the Lunar Horizon
  • Apollo 11: East Crater Panorama
  • Apollo 11 Mission Image
  • Apollo 13 Mission Control Celebrates
  • Neil Armstrong on the Moon
  • Earth Horizon from Mare Smythii
  • Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East
  • Apollo 11 Bootprint
  • Apollo 11: Catching Some Sun
  • President Nixon Welcomes Apollo 11 Astronauts
  • Astronauts Swarmed In Mexico City Parade
  • Apollo 11 Astronauts Visiting the Pope
  • Apollo 11 Lunar Mission Rollout
  • Neil Armstrong at the Lunar Landing Research Facility
  • Mariner 9 Views of Shield Volcano
  • Apollo 16: Duke on Crater's Edge
  • Apollo 14: Mitchell Studies Map
  • Schmitt Next to Big Boulder
  • Apollo 16: Mission Control
  • Viking I Spacecraft in Cleanroom
  • Skylab 4 'Christmas Tree'
  • Crescent Earth Rises Above Lunar Horizon
  • Earth, Photographed in Far-Ultraviolet Light
  • Earth and Moon Viewed by Mariner 10
  • Long-Lost Spacesuit Uncovered
  • Mars Mission: Viking I on Titan III Centaur Rocket Launch
  • Viking 2 Image of Mars Utopian Plain
  • Surface Changes in Chryse Planitia
  • Color Mosaic of Olympus Mons on Mars
  • Icy Mars
  • First Image of Saturn and Titan
  • Apollo 12 View of Solar Eclipse
  • XV-15 Tilt Rotor Aircraft
  • Sullivan and Ride Show Sleep Restraints
  • Backpacking
  • Neptune from First Voyager 2 Flyby
  • SR-71 Takeoff with Afterburner
  • Astronaut Mae Jemison Working in Spacelab-J
  • Practice Makes Perfect
  • Helios Prototype Flying Wing
  • Delta Liftoff
  • Lighting Up the Night

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