NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is safe, and out of emergency mode. That’s the word from NASA’s Charlie Sobeck, Kepler and K2 mission manager.
“It was the quick response and determination of the engineers throughout the weekend that led to the recovery. We are deeply appreciative of their efforts, and for the outpouring of support from the mission’s fans and followers from around the world. We also recognize the tremendous support from NASA’s Deep Space Network, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and to NASA’s other missions that surrendered their scheduled telemetry links in order to provide us with the resources needed to protect the Kepler spacecraft,” Sobeck wrote in an update today.
Kepler road in space has been a bumpy one. One of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels failed in July 2012. Almost one year later, a second failed. Without the spacecraft’s reaction wheels to keep the spacecraft oriented, engineers had to think of new, innovative ways to continue the mission.
The solution ultimately led to K2. Using solar pressure, the sun acts as the spacecraft’s third wheel. Here’s how it works.
Kepler enters emergency mode
The most recent scare happened just before Kepler was beginning Campaign 9. This new observation campaign focuses on the stars towards the Milky Way’s galactic center and uses microlensing to tease out details of worlds that wander through the cosmos.
Did you know: Kepler sits 75 million miles from Earth. That distance means communicating with the spacecraft requires a good bit of patience. It takes 13 minutes for a signal to travel to the spacecraft and back to Earth. Making attempts to figure out exactly what caused the spacecraft to enter emergency mode a time-consuming endeavor.
Because of when Kepler entered emergency mode, Kepler engineers don’t believe the planned maneuver or the reaction wheels were responsible for it entering emergency mode. As for the reason? The mission team still doesn’t know, but they are investigating while they get Kepler ready for science observations again.
As for Campaign 9? Ground-based telescopes are going forward with their observations. Kepler’s mission team will continue to assess the health of the spacecraft and determine whether or not the spacecraft will join the observing campaign at a later date.
The window for Campaign 9 is a short one. By July 1, the galactic center will no longer be seen from the vantage point of Kepler. If Kepler’s mission team can figure everything out in time, great. But if not, I would rather see the Kepler mission live to see another exoplanet.
I’ll update this post if we hear why Kepler entered emergency mode.
Image credits: NASA (and yes, the top one is an artist concept)