kepler view

Kepler Telescope’s New Mission

In the beginning of its career, Kepler space telescope was meant to locate Earth-sized planets far enough away from their stars to bear liquid water. The hope was that identifying these worlds would help to identify where the possibility of life might exist. Liquid water is considered necessary to allow life as we know it to spawn, and it seemed likely that a world a similar distance from its star and of a similar size to our own would be the best candidate to have developed that life.

But then, tragedy struck. About a year ago, as told in this Inquisitr article, one of the four reaction wheels used to turn the telescope to its target stopped working. NASA determined that the Kepler telescope was broken beyond repair. The problem was that they could not find a way to point it in the right direction without all the wheels functioning, which was essential to do to complete its mission to search for habitable planets.

Now, however, NASA announced that it plans to revive Kepler space telescope for a new mission. Without the functionality of all four wheels used to turn it, Kepler was considered fairly useless, so NASA has now approved a new, two-wheel operation mode for use. The new campaign, called K2, is scheduled to begin on May 30, when Kepler will be set to work monitoring about 150,000 target stars for changes in brightness–a possible sign of a planet passing by.

The Kepler telescope will now stare at whatever section it is aimed at for about 80 days, and then move on to another area, so that means it is likely to detect planets with shorter orbital periods. If it finds any planets, they’ll be slated for observation to determind the bulk compositions and atmospheric conditions.

Among the places slated for observation, NASA will be studying all types of stars, not just those like our Sun. They intend to have a look a bright star clusters including the Pleiades and the Beehive Cluster. They will also be examining supernova and other objects of interest beyond the Milky Way.

The Launch of the Kepler telescope, March 2009

So, even though the telescope is not stable enough to track small, transiting planets any longer, at least it can still be used to figure out the best places for future equipment to look for them. The upcoming mission has fuel for about two and a half years, but engineers are exploring ways to extend that time out to four years.