Stylized artwork shows NASA’s Kepler space telescope among planetary systems. (NASA Illustration / Wendy Stenzel / Daniel Rutter)
NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting telescope now belongs to the ages, with its fuel completely spent and its instruments shut down — but the planet quest continues, thanks to a treasure trove of downloaded data as well as a new generation of robotic planet-hunters.
Space agency officials declared the end of spacecraft operations today, nine and a half years after the car-sized probe was launched. The hydrazine fuel ran out about two weeks ago, signaled by a sharp drop in pressure readings for the propulsion system.
“In the end, we didn’t have a drop of fuel left over for anything else,” Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said during a teleconference.
For years, Kepler stared at a fixed area of the sky bridging the constellations Lyra and Cygnus to monitor about 150,000 stars for signs of planets. The probe detected distant worlds by watching for the telltale dimming of starlight as a planet passed over an alien sun’s disk.
Bill Borucki, the mission’s retired principal investigator, compared the task to “trying to detect a flea crawling across a car headlight ...