An ode to Kepler, NASA's spacecraft that changed what we know about the universe

‘A true discovery machine,' Kepler discovered 2,500 exoplanets

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist
Copyright 2016 Cable News Network/Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is running on fumes and may have just sent its last round of data back to Earth in its final hooray to exoplanets.

The spacecraft has been responsible for finding thousands of world’s outside our solar system that like Earth orbit a star — some even at a habitable distance from the star.

Last week, NASA announced that Kepler is running on fumes and waiting to send back its final data to Earth. Calling the spacecraft “a true discovery machine,” NASA officials said Kepler has helped find more than 2,600 exoplanets.

Kepler is on its 18th observation campaign, staring at one patch of sky looking for winking stars for signs that a planet is passing in front of the star. The fact that the spacecraft has made as many discoveries and lasted this long is a credit to its team members, who’ve had to think fast through several hurdles to keep the space telescope functioning.

Several times, Kepler’s mission team found the spacecraft in a compromising status. Last April, the spacecraft went into Emergency Mode, one step before a total loss.

During its first campaign the spacecraft lost one of its four reaction wheels used for balance; a year later another wheel went out. Kepler’s team, led by mission manager Charlie Sobeck, from NASA's Ames Research Center in California, came up with a plan to stabilize the exoplanet hunter by using the pressure of sunlight.

NASA’s newest planet hunter, TESS, will be sending back data later this summer and is expected to find tens of thousands of new worlds.

Kepler’s launch in 2009 led to discoveries that expanded the study of exoplanets into one of the fastest growing fields of study in astronomy.

Unlike TESS, which will scan almost the whole sky, Kepler stared at one patch of sky searching for winking stars.

"A lot of people were in doubt that we would find anything," University of Central Florida physics professor Joseph Harrington told News 6 before the TESS launch in April. "It was looking at about the size of your fist. That’s a wide field of view for any telescope.”

Kepler not only found single planets orbiting stars, but multi-planet systems similar to our own solar system.

Last year, NASA said scientists used Kepler data to confirm the TRAPPIST-1 system 40 light-years away — relatively close in terms of the universe. The TRAPPIST system includes seven Earth-size planets. Kepler proved that our solar system isn’t unique and that there are many more planet-star systems.

In December, using Google Artificial Intelligence Kepler found an an eighth planet orbiting the sun-like star Kepler 90, becoming the only other known system with as many planets was our own.

Kepler’s team will awaken the spacecraft from its slumber on Aug. 2 and start sending its possible final download of data back to Earth. If any fuel remains, in its last weeks or months, Kepler will keep staring at the sky, looking for more worlds outside of our own. 

Kepler will be remembered by the many people who worked on the mission over the past decade and the thousands of planetary scientists and astronomers whose research was fueled by Kepler discoveries.

Editor's note: On Oct. 30, 2018, NASA announced that Kepler had run out of fuel and the spacecraft was being retired.

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