Goodbye, Kepler! NASA Retires Planet-Hunting Telescope, Passes Torch To TESS

After nine years in space, Kepler is out of fuel and will no longer gather scientific data.

Artist's rendition of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.
NASA

After nine years in space, Kepler is out of fuel and will no longer gather scientific data.

The Kepler Space Telescope, humanity’s most prolific exoplanet hunter, has reached the end of its journey. The spacecraft has run out of fuel and is officially retiring from scientific operations, NASA announced yesterday.

The telescope has depleted the last of its gas reserves two weeks ago and will no longer conduct scientific observations or gather any more data, mission team members told reporters during a teleconference on October 30.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

“Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

But while the spacecraft may be retiring, this is not the end of Kepler. The telescope is expected to keep scientists busy for at least another decade, as even more discoveries could be unraveled from the wealth of Kepler data.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft will remain parked in its current orbit, at a safe distance from Earth, and will still be able to analyze data, NASA explained in a tweet.

Launched on March 6, 2009, Kepler was the first telescope to survey the planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The spacecraft served two missions scouring the skies in search of alien worlds and discovered more than 2,600 exoplanets — which amount to 70 percent of all the confirmed planets found outside of our solar system.

After nine years in space, the venerable space telescope leaves behind a rich legacy. Not only did Kepler help uncover that our sky is filled with more planets than stars, but it also became NASA’s first mission to set eyes on an Earth-sized alien world orbiting in the habitable zone of its parent star.

According to the space agency, data from Kepler revealed that up to 50 percent of the stars in the night sky could foster Earth-sized planets which could be rocky and which are located at distances that allow liquid water — one of the key ingredients for life — to pool on their surface.

“In nine years, Kepler discovered that there are #MorePlanetsThanStars. Today, we say farewell to the world-finding space telescope as it passes the torch to TESS,” tweeted NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which manages the development of the Kepler mission.

As Space points out, the decision hardly comes as a surprise, since the 9-year-old telescope has been running low on gas for the past several months. In order to conserve as much fuel as possible so that the spacecraft could beam back the last of its science data, NASA placed Kepler in “nap mode” twice over the summer, the Inquisitr recently reported.

The space telescope ended its fruitful career during the 19th Campaign of its K2 mission — its second mission, inaugurated in 2014. Its ground-breaking work will be continued by NASA’s newest exoplanet-seeker — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS.

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said William Borucki, founding principal investigator of the Kepler mission.

“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,” added Borucki, who is now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.