NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Telescope
Given New Mission
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[May 17, 2014]
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. (Reuters) - NASA plans
to revive its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope for a new mission
after a positioning system problem sidelined the observatory last year,
officials said on Friday.
The telescope was launched in 2009 to search for Earth-sized
planets suitably positioned around their parent stars for liquid
water, a condition believed necessary for life.
Kepler scientists are still analyzing data to find a true Earth
analog but already have added 962 confirmations and 3,845 candidates
to the list of 1,713 planets discovered beyond the solar system.
Keplerís steady gaze was broken last year when it lost the second of
four positioning wheels. Three are needed for precision pointing.
"Good news from NASA HQ," Kepler deputy project manager Charlie
Sobeck wrote in a status report posted on the Kepler website. "The
two-wheel operation mode of the Kepler spacecraft ... has been
The first observations of the new campaign, called K2, are scheduled
to begin on May 30.Kepler worked by monitoring about 150,000 target
stars for slight but regular changes in brightness, a possible sign
of a planet passing by, or transiting, relative to the telescopeís
line of sight.
An Earth-sized planet moving around its host star as close as Earth
circles the sun would transit once every 365 days. Scientists want
to see at least three transits to be sure any telltale light dips
are caused by a passing and not a stellar flare or other phenomenon.
Engineers developed a plan to use pressure from sunlight to balance
the telescope, though it no longer will be stable enough to catch
the faint signs of small, transiting planets.
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NASA approved a two-year follow-on mission encompassing all types of
stars, rather than just stars like the sun. The observations also
will include star clusters, supernova and objects beyond the Milky
Kepler currently costs NASA about $18 million a year. The telescope
flies in an orbit about 40 million miles (64 million km) from Earth.
(Editing by Grant McCool)
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