It’s a sad day. After four years, the Kepler spacecraft has ended its search for habitable planets beyond our solar system. NASA confirmed today that it will no longer attempt to repair two failing, gyroscope-like wheels that kept Kepler steady, meaning that scientists cannot aim the telescope as precisely as they need to.
The Kepler mission was one of NASA’s most popular and successful. As KQED reported back in May, the space observatory was launched on March 6, 2009, on a search to disprove the notion that Earth is unique in the universe. Kepler’s data collected during the first half of its mission confirmed 135 exoplanets, and identified more than 3,500 candidate planets. Another two years’ worth of data still needs to be analyzed.
Kepler, which is based at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, is particularly significant to Bay Area scientists. KQED’s earlier story included an interview with Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and a co-investigator on the project. The telescope’s failure had Marcy in tears.
NASA is now looking at alternative uses for the hobbled telescope. It will decide how to fund a new Kepler program for launch in the summer of 2014.