Planet-Hunting Kepler Craft Has Big Setback
Malfunction threatens ability to look for Earth-like bodies
By John Johnson, Newser Staff
Posted May 15, 2013 6:45 PM CDT
This artist's rendering provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope.   (AP Photo/NASA, File)

(Newser) – It seems like NASA is announcing the discovery of a new Earth-like planet every few weeks—like so, and so, and so—but those days might be over for a long while. Not that there aren't more discoveries to make, it's just that the spacecraft responsible for them has a faulty "reaction wheel" that might mean the end of the mission, reports Kepler needs three such wheels functioning properly to zero in on targets, but one is kaput. NASA sent up the craft with a spare when it launched the $600 million mission in 2009, but that had to be deployed last summer. Now it's out of spares.

Engineers aren't giving up hope of getting one of the two troublesome wheels working again, but if that proves impossible, Kepler will have to shift to a less ambitious sky-gazing mission. (It's 40 million miles away, so a manual fix is out of the question.) Kepler has been busy in its four-plus years, identifying 115 planets and another 2,740 likely candidates, reports the New York Times. "Before we flew Kepler, we didn't know that Earth-sized planets in habitable zones were common throughout our galaxy," says a NASA scientist. "We didn't know that virtually every star in the sky had planets around them. Now we know that."

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Showing 3 of 42 comments
May 17, 2013 12:43 AM CDT
wtf is a "stabilizing control wheel" or "reaction wheel"? A gyroscope? If it's a gyroscope I'll be pissed.
May 15, 2013 11:57 PM CDT
in its four-plus years out its identified 115 planets and another 2,740 likely candidates. astronomy is changing almost everyday with discoveries like of 'exoplanets' and 'hot jupiters' made possible with this kind of mission. Even the Voyagers are somewhere near the edge of the Solar System. I'd like to be around another hundred years...
May 15, 2013 11:53 PM CDT
If you're going to do this sort of thing, always build a spare for insurance. A lot of the cost has to do with the setup --- putting all the production and assembly requirements in place. Once these are in place, an second unit can be built alongside the first for a modest additional cost.