We will never hear from NASA’s Kepler space telescope again. On October 30, the space agency announced the telescope’s mission was coming to an end after running out of fuel. Without fuel to hold the telescope steady, Kepler began a never-ending tumble.
Late last week, NASA’s Deep Space Network beamed the final commands to the planet hunter. These last commands also happened on the anniversary of the death of Kepler’s namesake (astronomer Johannes Kepler) 388 years ago.
The Kepler team had to time up the last data upload perfectly because Kepler had already begun a slow spin after using up the last drops of fuel. Inside the communication beam were commands disabling safety modes and shutting down Kepler’s transmitters.
While we won’t hear from Kepler ever again, its legacy lives on in nine years worth of data. Distant planets we don’t yet know about will become Kepler’s newest discoveries in the months and years to come.
“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”
Kepler shows us that solar systems like ours aren’t the exception. According to NASA, a recent analysis of Kepler data suggests up to 50% of the stars we see in the night sky are home to rocky planets like Earth.
What happens to Kepler now?
Kepler won’t be coming back to Earth. Today, the telescope sits 94 million miles away orbiting the Sun as it trails behind it. And the distance between Kepler and Earth will only grow as Kepler takes a slower trek around the Sun. NASA released a neat little video showing what will happen with Kepler over the next 100 years or so.
By 2060, Earth will lap the telescope. The gravitational tug from Earth will put in on a shorter, faster orbit around the Sun. Kepler will stay out in front of Earth until 2117 when it catches Earth from behind. Earth will tug once more on Kepler and pull it back into a wider, slower orbit. This gravitational dance will continue forever.
With Kepler going silent, the planet-hunting duties fall to NASA’s TESS spacecraft. It began science operations back in July with the first bits of science data beamed back to Earth in August.
NASA won’t mourn the end of one mission for long. Another one is set to begin. The Mars mission InSight will touch down on the red planet in a little over seven days.