Big NASA Space Missions Ended This Week, But Don't Panic

NASA  Ames  Wendy Stenzel

"We are announcing today that NASA's Kepler telescope, which is hunting for new planets, more than enough fuel".

Both spacecraft used chemical fuel to twist themselves back toward Earth and beam their findings home; without that fuel there was no way to learn from our distant emissaries.

"It not only showed us how many planets could be out there, but it also generated a whole new field of research". Most of these new discoveries are due to a single endeavor-NASA's Kepler mission.(Chart: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel and The University of Texas at Austin/Andrew Vanderburg) Kepler is a spacecraft housing a one-meter telescope that illuminates a 95-megapixel digital camera the size of a cookie sheet.

The mission was first conceived 35 years ago and detected planets by looking for the way a star's light dims when a planet crosses the star's face. The spacecraft, with a 1.4-meter diameter telescope, discovered almost 3000 exoplanets and many potential candidates that are still awaiting confirmation.

The information received from Kepler was made accessible to the public and resulted in a phenomenal explosion in citizen science - hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world helped sift through the data, revealing exoplanets that others (and other computers) had missed. The most recent analysis of Kepler's discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars.

What Kepler found during its lifetime could be a guide not only in the continuing search for exoplanets, but the search for anything alive beyond Earth. Mechanical failures ended the most precise phase of Kepler's observations four years after launch but engineers and astronomers devised a way to continue searching for planets using the spacecraft. That means that they are located at a distance from the stars that orbit where liquid water, a vital ingredient for life as we know it, can accumulate on the surface of these exoplanets. The second phase of Kepler's mission was called K2 and the discoveries in this extended mission further improved our understanding of planets and planetary systems. In addition to the Kepler data, the archive also offers community-provided data sets for further scientific discoveries. The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA's newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April.

To replace the "Kepler" will come infrared telescope James Webb, which will be launched in March 2021.

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