WASHINGTON, August 15 (by Karin Zeitvogel for RIA Novosti) – NASA said Thursday it is giving up on trying to fix its $600-million planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, which was crippled by an equipment failure three months ago, but insisted there is still plenty of life left in the “spectacularly successful” mission.
“We are now moving on to the next phase of Kepler’s mission,” said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz after NASA tried unsuccessfully to fix a set of “reaction wheels” – devices which help to control the direction the spacecraft is facing as it scans space for new planets.
The wheels, which Kepler uses to point itself toward the sun, failed in May, causing the spacecraft to fire its thruster engines to keep it pointed toward the sun.
The failure to reactivate the wheels – the second of four sets to fail in the space of 12 months – did not signal the end of the Kepler mission, NASA said.
“We have all this data that is not yet analyzed and we expect many, many more discoveries. The mission is in no way done,” said Bill Borucki, the principal science investigator on the mission.
Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the so-called habitable zone, where the temperature of a planet might allow the presence of life-sustaining water. It was supposed to end its planet hunting days last year, but was still functioning and sending back data to Earth right up until the second set of wheels failed in May.
Scientists have analyzed only two years’ worth of data sent back by Kepler since it was launched in March of 2009, and that has allowed them to confirm the existence of 135 planets and identify 3,500 planetary candidates.
In April, NASA announced that the space-peering telescope had discovered seven new planets, including two orbiting in the habitable zone “between fire and ice” that could sustain human life.
Borucki said he felt “really immense satisfaction with what Kepler has accomplished” but also some regret that the telescope’s precision planet hunting days were over.
“When we started the mission, it was like I was standing in this desert and it was empty – there was no knowledge of other planets,” he said.
“Now I feel like I’m covered with an ocean full of data on all these other planets. But it would have been even better if we could have lengthened the mission because we would have found better statistics, so there’s a little bit of regret,” he said.
Still, he said, “As we dig into all the data that has been accumulated during the four full years of operation, we expect hundreds, maybe thousands of new planet discoveries, including the long-awaited Earth size planet orbiting a star as hot as our sun.”