NASA Kepler Spacecraft is Low On Fuel and Close to Death

NASA's planet-seeking Kepler space telescope may run out of fuel within several months

Image courtesy NASA

Its original mission estimate was for three and a half years, but this was extended as it continued to seek out extrasolar planets as it circled the Sun in its Earth-trailing orbit about 94 million mi (151 million km) from home.

After nearly a decade in flight, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope is reaching the end of its useful life. NASA predicted Kepler could survive about ten campaigns before it finally ran out of fuel, but its now entering its 17th campaign.

Kepler doesn't have a gas gauge, but estimates show that it is approaching dangerously low levels of fuel. These quarterly adjustments are dubbed "campaigns" by NASA, which estimated at the time, that Kepler would be able to perform only 10 campaigns before running out of fuel.

Based on initial calculations, Kepler's systems engineer Charlie Sobeck believes it has about seven months of reserves left, but admits that it has been wrong in the past about how fuel-efficient it has proven to be. "While we are now anticipating that the flight operations will end soon, we are prepared to continue as long as the fuel allows".

Then, with any luck, they'll be able to "beam it back to earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters" means that they can't aim Kepler for data transfer. However, scientists are expecting that they can extract more data in between that time. The mission has already completed 16 campaigns, and this month entered its 17th. The space telescope now on its 17th campaign.

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Last September, NASA sent the Cassini space craft on a "death dive" into Saturn, rather than risk it falling into one of the planet's moons, the agency explained. With this in mind, the project team will continue to collect data about candidate exoplanets for as long as possible, with a final set of commands ready for the spacecraft to carry out a series of calibration exercises as the end nears.

As the space telescope doesn't have a fuel gauge, it is hard to tell about the exact date when it will stop working.

Meanwhile, the next United States "hunter" of exoplanets, the Transition Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 16th.

NASA says TESS will focus on the brightest stars less than 300 light-years away, which will 'add to Kepler's treasure trove of planet discoveries'.

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