Last light for the Kepler space telescope


Last light for the Kepler space telescope

Bryan Dyne

1 December 2018

After more than nine years of unprecedented discovery of worlds beyond our Solar System, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has exhausted its supply of fuel needed for scientific operations. On October 30, the agency officially retired its tenth Discovery-class mission, leaving behind a legacy of exploration that revolutionized humanity’s understanding of our galaxy’s planets and the stars they orbit.

During its primary and extended mission, the Kepler spacecraft observed 530,506 stars, discovered 2,681 exoplanets, found 2,899 candidate exoplanets that have yet to be confirmed and watched 61 supernovae as they exploded. There have been 2,946 scientific papers published from the 678 gigabytes of data collected by the telescope and beamed back from Kepler’s Sun-circling orbit, which trails further and further behind that of the Earth.

Concept art of Kepler-16b, the first planet found orbiting two suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler was the culmination of decades of research and development into new methods to detect Earth-sized planets across interstellar distances. NASA researcher William Borucki began work on extrasolar planet detection in 1983 and published a paper with Audrey Summers in 1984 noting that while the instruments of the time, operating from the Earth’s surface, could detect Jupiter-sized planets, it would take a space-based telescope to find smaller exoplanets, those which might be closer to the Earth in size or composition. This idea was refined for many years until Kepler was finally approved in 2001 and launched on March 9, 2007.

The telescope’s primary mission had a single purpose: to continuously observe a particular region of space and watch for any periodic…

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