One of the biggest difficulties with putting space craft outside of Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) is that it gets ever more difficult to maintain it. Repairs are too costly to attempt in person, so the best we can often hope for are software tweaks – but even they take a long time due to the magnitude of space. With that in mind, you can imagine NASA is breathing a sigh of relief, after saving the Kepler telescope from impending doom.
The Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009, with plans to use it to find habitable planets around far-flung stars and though it has faced set backs like failing reaction wheels and a mission redesign, until lately it's been ticking along just fine. During its tenure it's reported more than a thousand exoplanets and thousands of potentials throughout it's time in the murky black beyond.
But this past weekend, NASA noticed something wasn't right. Indeed during the scheduled contact, it was discovered that the spacecraft had entered emergency mode – the first time it had ever done so. That mode provides little functionality to the craft itself, but requires a lot of fuel to keep going, which is not what you want when you're 75 million miles from the nearest refueling station.
To aid in the recovery of Kepler, NASA scientists commandeered the Deep Space Network (DSN), a series of satellite antennas in various Earth locations, used for communicating with deep-space craft. This allowed it to stay constantly in touch with Kepler, or as best as that allowed.
Even with the DSN though, troubleshooting from that distance is difficult. Commands sent to the spacecraft take six and a half minutes to reach the craft and another six and a half minutes for a response to be received. Fortunately, after several days of nail biting and back and forth communication with the craft, NASA has managed to bring Kepler back to its full operational mode, with fuel usage now at a minimum.
Over the next week, scientists will download data from the Kepler telescope to find out what went wrong, but if all is relatively well, it will return to its planned 9th campaign to catalogue planets that exist on the outskirts of solar systems and wander between the stars with very little gravitational affiliation.
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KitGuru Says: Kepler is doing a great job, even if it has hit a few hiccups. Like the rovers still trundling around Mars, Kepler is years beyond its intended original mission. Kudos to everyone for keeping it ticking over.