Spaceflight Insider

Running on Empty: NASA’s Kepler spacecraft pauses observations

Artist's concept of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

The Kepler mission team recently received an indication that the spacecraft is running very low on fuel. The team has paused the spacecraft’s planet-hunting science observations and placed it in a hibernation-like state to prepare to download the science data collected during its most recent observation campaign. Once the data is downloaded, the team expects to begin a new observation campaign with the spacecraft’s remaining fuel.

Kepler has been on its 18th observation since May 12 of this year (2018), studying a cluster of stars near the constellation of Cancer that the spacecraft had previously observed in 2015. Data gathered during this second look should give researchers an opportunity to confirm previously known exoplanet candidates and potentially discovering new ones. The highest priority for Kepler’s remaining fuel is to return the data back to Earth.

To return that data to Earth, Kepler must point its large antenna back home and then transmit the data during the spacecraft’s allotted Deep Space Network time in early August. The space- based telescope is currently stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode. The mission team are planning to awaken the spacecraft from safe mode on August 2. They will then maneuver it into the proper orientation for transmimitting the data. If the maneuver and data download are successful, the team will begin Kepler’s 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the spacecraft’s remaining fuel.

NASA plans to provide an update on Kepler’s status following the scheduled data download. The mission team has been closely monitoring the spacecraft for signs of low fuel, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months.

As engineers work to collect the data currently aboard the spacecraft, researchers are analyzing data already returned to Earth. 24 new planet discoveries were recently made using information gleaned from Kepler’s 10th observation campaign, adding to the mission’s growing total of 2,650 confirmed worlds orbiting distant stars.

On April 18, 2018, Kepler’s planet-hunting successor, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. TESS is expected to discover thousands of exoplanets orbiting nearby stars over the course of its planned two year mission.

In terms of Kepler, the space telescope lifted off from Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 17, atop its United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket (7925-10L) on March 7, 2009. The spacecraft began its work a couple months later. Kepler was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies and had a planned operational life of about three and a half years. 

Kepler is named after Johannes Kepler, a 16th century German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer.







Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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