NASA declares elite planet-hunting spacecraft dead

NASA's exoplanet hunter the Kepler space telescope leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be retired, following a nine-and-a-half-year mission in search of planets that might harbour life beyond our solar system. But the innovative spacecraft enjoyed an illustrious career, discovering as many as 2,600 planets and inspiring new fields of research, NASA said.

Kepler's discoveries have shed a new light on mankind's place in the Universe.

NASA made a sad announcement this afternoon: its planet hunting spacecraft Kepler has been retired after running out of fuel. But more important, Kepler was the first NASA mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of other stars.

During its mission, Kepler found 2,681 confirmed exoplanets - the term for planets outside our solar system - and another 2,899 candidates, bringing its tally to 5,580.

"Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that's full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy", said Borucki.

Kepler was succeeded by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which was launched in April.

Kepler has spent the last nine years in deep space hunting exoplanets that are otherwise hidden from humanity's view.

As it orbits some 156 million kilometres from Earth, Keplar's radio transmitters will soon be turned off by mission engineers and the spacecraft will be left to drift forever around the sun.

The Kepler telescope discovered more than 2,600 of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets - the term for planets outside our solar system - that have been documented in the past two decades.

Several of them are rocky and Earth-sized in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star - an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for the existence of water, which is considered a key ingredient for life.

Artist’s conception of Kepler
Artist’s conception of Kepler

"We know the spacecraft's retirement isn't the end of Kepler's discoveries", Kepler's project scientist Jessie Dotson said.

Four years into its mission, mechanical failures briefly halted observations.

Mission planners reworked Kepler's mode of operation to point at other parts of the sky, expanding its list of targets to 500,000 stars.

Just like biologists continue to discover new species by examining the samples already found in museum collections, the data already gathered by Kepler could keep astronomers busy for years to come. It's also illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.

"Because of fuel exhaustion, the Kepler spacecraft has reached the end of its service life", he said.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn't exist in our solar system, however.

Kepler has revolutionised our understanding of the universe. Borucki sought to develop what ultimately became Kepler for decades, eventually convincing NASA that a space telescope that could perform precise photometry of thousands of stars, needed to detect the brightness variations caused by transits, was feasible. "That was an unbelievable diving catch", said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters.

"I'm excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler's results".

Planetary exploration is going through a wider-ranging changing of the guard: For example, NASA's Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres is ending, due to the same empty-tank issue that Kepler faced.

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