Kepler Spacecraft Suffers Major Failure, Mission’s Future In Jeopardy

The Kepler space observatory suffered a major failure on Wednesday, putting into questions the future of NASA’s planet-hunting space observatory.

Kepler’s controllers found on Tuesday that the observatory had gone into a “safe mode.” They also found that one of the reaction wheels needed to orient the spacecraft wasn’t spinning.

Associate NASA Administrator John Grunsfeld added that NASA engineers are trying to figure out if they can get the part back into service or regain control another way. Grunsfeld added:

“We’re not ready to call the mission over. Kepler is not in a place where I can go up and rescue it.”

The Kepler mission’s spacecraft orbits the sun rather than the Earth. Because of this, the craft is currently about 40 million miles from us. So far, the mission has identified 132 planets out of our solar system since it launched in 2009. Because of this, scientists believe most stars in our galaxy have planets circling them.

The Kepler probe was built with four reaction wheels, though three of them are needed to aim its telescope precisely at a far away star. Deputy project manager Charlie Sobeck added that the probe has already had one reaction wheel fail in July 2012. That means that the spacecraft is left with two reaction wheels.

Kepler shut itself down after it was pointing in the wrong direction. Its solar panels are facing back at the sun, giving controllers intermittent communication with Kepler as it spins far above the Earth. Sobeck stated it was “reasonable to suspect” the shutdown was from the reaction wheel’s failure, though scientists have not yet confirmed it.

Kepler was designed to operate for between three and a half to six years. Even if controllers are unable to fix the craft’s issues, NASA stated that the mission has provided enough data to keep mission scientists busy for the next two years.

The $600 million Kepler spacecraft has spotted exoplanets by searching for brightness dips caused when they pass between us and their parent stars. The main goal for the mission has been to learn how common Earth-like alien planets are throughout our galaxy. Before its failure, Kepler’s reaction wheel showed signs of elevated friction for five months.

[Image via NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech]