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The Planet-Hunting Kepler Telescope Entered Emergency Mode

The probe suddenly went into a safe mode for unknown reasons last week

(NASA)
smithsonian.com

Update April 11, 2016: NASA just announced that they recovered Kepler from Emergency Mode and the probe is currently stable. Working hard through the weekend, engineers successfully pointed its antennae towards Earth on Sunday morning to download data about the shutdown. Over the next week engineers will analyze the information to make sure Kepler is healthy enough to return to “science mode” and begin its next mission, looking at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Last Friday, NASA released some bad news. A transmission from the Kepler space telescope indicates that the 600-million-dollar exoplanet-hunting probe has entered its emergency mode. Sometime last week, as it was preparing to turn toward the center of the Milky Way, the spacecraft shut down nonessential operations and went into a type of hibernation, the space agency reports.

Kepler was launched in 2009 to seek out habitable planets, watching for miniscule dips in brightness of nearby stars that might indicate an orbiting planet. So far, Kepler has detected 5,000 potential exoplanets, of which over 1,000 are confirmed.

In 2012 and 2013, however, the spacecraft lost two of its four reaction wheels, which act like gyroscopes to allow researchers to precisely orient the craft, writes Lucy Schouten at the Christian Science Monitor. But NASA didn't give up on the little craft and began using the sun’s light to help balance the craft for 83 days at a time, a mission dubbed K2.

The first K2 “campaign” began in May 2014 and since then the telescope has has identified 100 more confirmed exoplanets, most of them lingering in the habitable zone where water—and potentially life—could exist. Kepler was preparing for its sixth campaign when the current problem took it offline.

The telescope’s targets are chosen through an open call for proposals, instead of being dictated by NASA or other research partners. Because of this, the K2 mission has made the project even more wide-ranging than its creators ever envisioned.  

“The new approach of letting the community decide the most compelling science targets we’re going to look at has been one of the most exciting aspects,” Steve Howell a Kepler and K2 project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center said in a statement last month. “Because of that, the breadth of our science is vast, including star clusters, young stars, supernovae, white dwarfs, very bright stars, active galaxies and, of course, exoplanets.”

Any specific problems with Kepler have not been publicly revealed. Last July, the New Horizons spacecraft went into safe mode after its main computer was overloaded less than ten days before its fly-by of the planet Pluto. Researchers rebooted the probe to get it back in action, but the nine-hour round-trip for communications made the process long and suspenseful. Though communication with Kepler is not quite as time consuming, communication with the probe 75 million miles away from Earth still takes about 13 minutes. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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