Kepler mission to be brought back from the dead?
With plans to extend its mission, could the exoplanet hunter be given a second shot at science?
When two out of four of its reaction wheels gave up the ghost, many thought that the NASA Kepler Space Telescope’s days were numbered. But some, such as the likes of the mission’s Project Scientist Steve Howell, have seen an opportunity for bigger and better things – the birth of K2 – a mission extension that could give some multifaceted clout by looking at a variety of space objects as well as exoplanets, for up to four years.
“I started thinking about a two-wheel Kepler mission after the loss of the first reaction wheel,” Howell, who is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center, admits to All About Space. “I always believed we had a repurpose mission opportunity.”
The $600 million space observatory, which was launched in 2009, was employed to discover Earth-like planets in or near the habitable zones – the distance at which conditions are just right for liquid water to exist – of other stars. In particular, Kepler focussed on a fixed portion of our Milky Way galaxy, sniffing out worlds via he transit method; which allows the detection of exoplanets when they pass across the face of their star. However in May of this year, disaster struck as two of the mission’s reaction wheels failed, disabling its ability to collect science data – Kepler’s exoplanet hunt had been well and truly derailed.
“When launched, Kepler had four working reaction wheels,” says Howell. “These wheels were used to point the spacecraft at the field of view. Three wheels are all you really need, so after the loss of the one wheel we were still fine. With two wheels only, a clever solution was needed.”
And, with no hope of recovering them, this solution was to make Kepler a bit more multitalented. Drawing up plans for a mission extension, officials were not just talking about resuming its hunt for other planets over a broader field of view of five to ten times more area, new venture, dubbed K2, would also have a taste for supernova explosions, star formation as well as other Solar System bodies such as asteroids and comets. It is intended that, since the telescope’s vision is not so restricted as it was previously, it would be able to study 10,000 to 20,000 targets in each field. Any suitable targets would be followed up by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which is set for launch in 2018.
“The repurposed mission will be used to study exoplanets and much other science searching new regions of the Galaxy along the ecliptic plane,” says Howell of the orientation that would help out the telescope’s compromised pointing ability. “We are currently working through engineering tests and gathering science verification data and will propose to NASA early in 2014 to provide funding to operate K2 for two to four more years.”
Kepler has done us proud. With a recent announcement of the results of its data – which sees a total of 3,538 potential worlds – over the first three years, coming up with a way to continue its science seems like a logical move. Especially since, according to Kepler project manager Charlie Sobeck, both the spacecraft and instrument are in “great shape”.
However, there’s a snag. The new plans are coming at a time where researchers are squeezing out every last drop of useable information from the telescope’s current data set. With a ridged budget of $18 million per year, the team are somehow going to have to make room for K2.
“Clearly, this is a challenge,” says Sobeck. But he’s optimistic. “It’s not beyond the reach. I think it’s something that we might be able to achieve.”
“With a successful approval from the NASA senior review panel in early 2014, we plan to have K2 officially operating and collecting high quality science to search for exoplanets and other hi-impact science very soon,” concludes Howell.
Good luck, Kepler!
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Images courtesy of NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel and SETI/J Rowe (top) and NASA Ames/W Stenzel (bottom).