After four years of planet hunting, the Kepler space telescope lost its mojo. Part of its pointing system failed last year, leaving the telescope unable to track its target stars. But engineers have worked out a plan that could put the craft back to work. If the plan gets approval from top NASA managers, Kepler could be hunting new planets by late spring.
Kepler was launched five years ago today. Until its pointing system failed, it continually watched about 150,000 stars in search of planets.
And it found thousands of possible worlds. The list includes some planets that are about the size of Earth, and that orbit inside their stars’ “habitable zones” — the distance from the star that’s comfortable for life. Kepler’s observations also reveal details about the stars themselves, as well as black holes and many other objects that vary in brightness.
Right now Kepler can’t point properly. But the rescue plan could restore some of that function.
Under the new mission, called K2, the craft would be oriented in such a way that it minimizes the pressure exerted by sunlight. That would allow it to watch a patch of sky for about three months. At the end of that time it would move to a new patch of sky.
Because it could look at each patch of sky for only a short time, it could find only a limited number of planets. But its observations could yield planets in regions of the sky it hasn’t looked at before — extending our knowledge of worlds beyond our own solar system.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014