Artist's illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

Artist’s illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

The Kepler space telescope has been nothing short of incredible, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets and showing just how common and diverse they really are (as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction). Recently, however, additional mechanical problems have started plaguing the mission, threatening to cut it short. The news during the past few weeks has been pessimistic, declaring that Kepler’s planet-hunting days are all but over. But there is still hope, as announced by the mission’s engineering team, that further testing later this month can help to resolve the situation.

The problem lies with Kepler’s four reaction wheels, which provide stability while the telescope examines the stars in its field of view. One of those wheels failed last year, but the telescope can continue to function with only three. When a second wheel failed on May 11, 2013, however, it put the entire mission in jeopardy. Without at least three functioning reaction wheels, the telescope can’t focus on its target stars properly.

From the latest Kepler Mission Manager update (July 3, 2013):

“The engineering team has devised initial tests for the recovery attempt and is checking them on the spacecraft test bed at the Ball Aerospace facility in Boulder, Colo. The team anticipates that exploratory commanding of Kepler’s reaction wheels will commence mid-to-late July. The Kepler spacecraft will remain in PRS until and during the tests.”

Diagram of the Kepler space telescope, including reaction wheels #3 and #4. Credit: Ball Aerospace

Diagram of the Kepler space telescope, including reaction wheels #3 and #4.
Credit: Ball Aerospace

So let’s not give up yet, it is still possible that Kepler can be fixed and resume its activities. But even if that doesn’t happen, Kepler has already returned an enormous amount of data, most of which still hasn’t even been looked at in detail yet. Even so, it has already confirmed 134 new exoplanets, with another 3,277 awaiting confirmation. It has also shown that planets are a common and natural part of star formation, and that smaller rocky planets like Earth are probably more numerous than larger gas or ice giants. Not bad at all, considering that not too long ago we didn’t even know if there were any other planets outside of our solar system at all.

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy. He currently writes for AmericaSpace, Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

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