The Kepler spacecraft has been with us long enough (it launched in 2009) and has revealed so much about the stars in our galaxy that its retirement — Kepler lacks the fuel for further science operations — is cause for reflection. The end of great missions always gives us pause as we consider their goals and their accomplishments, and offer up our gratitude to the many people who made the mission happen. Let’s try to back up and see things in their totality.
Image: An artist’s conception of Kepler at work. Credit: NASA/Ames/Dan Rutter.
Kepler’s job was essentially statistical, an attempt to look at as many stars as possible in a particular field of stars, so that we could gain insights into the distribution of planets there, and thus deduce something about likely conditions galaxy-wide. We didn’t know in 2009 that there was statistically at least one planet around every star, nor did we know just how diverse the worlds Kepler found, more than 2,600 of them, would be. Moreover, Kepler pushed the bounds of the possible with an ingenious extended mission.
After the mission was extended in 2012, engineers had to work around gyroscope failures to use solar photon ...