Alright, before we get started, let me first explain what I meant by the title. Every news outlet says that the Kepler Space Telescope has “run” out of fuel and has been officially retired by NASA. While this is true, it wasn’t supposed to happen for at least 10 years after launch (It’s been only 9). But still it just went ahead ran out Hydrazine. Probably because of a wild night of planet glazing. NASA hasn’t yet disclosed what the malfunction was, so it’s safe to say that the satellite had run into an issue that quickly depleted all of it’s reserve fuel and disclosing this issue might question NASA’s credibility.
Or maybe some alien Dracula sucked up all it’s fuel with thirst for more and is on it’s way to earth right now for an invasion. Too bad half of earth’s mightiest heroes are already dead😫👌. Or maybe all we need is a “👏👏 aliennn review”.
The Kepler Space Telescope (KST) is probably the most underrated satellite out there. It’s often over shadowed by the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope which are larger and also “popular”. But the sheer amount of information that the telescope sent back home, how reliable it was and how significant it was probably makes it one of my favorite satellites ever.
Not to be confused, the Hubble Space Telescope was the first deep space telescope and was used to discover and image extremely distant celestial objects. It was launched on April 24, 1990. The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to Hubble with greatly improved resolution and sensitivity. It was supposed to be launched in March 2018, but the sunshield got ripped apart during testing. So it is currently scheduled to launch in March 2021.
The primary mission for KST was to find planets. Exo-Planets. These are the planets orbiting stars outside the Solar System, in the Milky Way Galaxy. Before the KST no one really knew if there were any planets in the galaxy. We knew there were other stars because we could easily look at them from down here. But the planets orbiting those stars were not visible with any observatory. So to kind of give you an idea of how clueless we were, NASA actually confirmed that the only planets they knew in the entire universe were in the solar system.
“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.”
So KST was indeed very vital to our understanding about the universe.
Before we get into more detail about KST’s significance, let’s first talk about how it actually died. NASA had fueled KST up for 10 years of planet gazing. You are probably wondering how much fuel might that be. A lot? No. At the time of launch it only had about 11.8 liters of hydrazine. If only my Honda Activa was so efficient. This also goes to show how effective and efficient NASA’s older deep space satellites were. BTW, Voyager 1 & 2 are still going strong (they launched in 1977).
KST plagued with a lot of problems during it’s missions. In July 2012 one of KSTs 4 reaction wheels failed. A reaction wheel is sort of like a gimbal that is used to control a spacecraft’s three axis movement. We use this instead of using rockets or thrusters for small fine tuned three axis movement torque. It is used to precisely point towards a section in deep space to study it and discover planets. It is driven using a motor. It kinda like those astronaut training seats you find in amusement parks.
But KST had 4 reaction wheels, out of which it needed only 3 for the 3 axes. Unfortunately, a year later on May 11, 2013, another reaction wheel failed. This completely ruined the mission. So now, the telescope had a hard time pointing towards one area for studying.
So NASA decided that it would try and gather as much data as possible with the remaining 2 reaction wheels. This drained the fuel tank and since then the telescope has stayed “rest” state.
Kepler Space Telescope discovered a ton of celestial objects. It is responsible for 70% of the roughly 3,000 confirmed exo-planet discoveries to date. KST has discovered 2,327 exo-planets. 1,815 of those planets were on 726 multiplanet systems.
Planets are harder to image because they are smaller, less massive and not too bright. But stars on the other hand are easier ( even thought it wasn’t KST’s primary mission). They are WAY larger, WAY more massive and a LOT brighter than planets. This is the reason why KST was able to analyze far more stars than planets even though it had those reaction wheel issues. All in all, KST was able to discover and analyse more than 530,000 stars in our galaxy.
Part of the objective was to find planets are earth-like. Planets that are in the Goldilocks Zone. Basically, the Goldilocks Zone is a circum-stellar habitable region. The Earth in the Goldilocks Zone of the Solar System. It means that, it is just far enough from the sun to be ideally cool and just close enough to the sun to be ideally warm. It’s at the exact perfect distance away from the sun in order to host life as we know it today. Hope I could explain that well.
Elon Musk’s goal is comparatively short term. Mars seems pretty out of reach. But it’s nothing compared to Gliese 832c. It is perhaps the the best possibly life supporting exo-planet out there. It is 16.1 light years away. This basically means, if we were able to travel at the speed of light ( we’re not even close ), we would reach it in 16 years and change. There a few theoretical methods with which we can achieve this feat, but that’s a whole topic for another time with it’s own little click bait.
Kepler detects planets by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars. Some planets pass in front of their stars as seen from our point of view on Earth; when they do, they cause their stars to dim slightly, an event Kepler can see. This tedious process is how we discovered all these planets. Truly amazing stuff.
So your probably wondering how exactly does the telescope even look at these light dips. Basically, it’s got a gigantic camera. The largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, like those in everyday digital cameras. KST’s telescope is so powerful that, from its view up in space, it could detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night.
I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg really really wants this little camera in his pocket 😂👀.
“Alright we get it, you love this telescope… But what now? What going to happen to it?”
Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed KST to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel. The latest data will complement the data from NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April. TESS builds on KST’s foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth, worlds that can later be explored for signs of life by missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.
TESS has a long way to go before it catches up to KST. But someday in the not-too-distant future, TESS or another future telescope will eventually usurp KST’s position as the undisputed ruler of planet-discovering devices. More worlds will be found, and our image of the galaxy will keep resolving into a sharper focus.
But don’y worry just yet. Our beloved KST isn’t going end up as a fiery shooting star like Cassini which recently was plunged in to the surface of Saturn before being retired in order to gather vital data as close as possible and also captured stunning images of Saturn up close and personal.
After nine long years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky is filled with billions of hidden planets, more planets even than stars, KST is finally retired and will stay in it’s current, safe orbit, away from Earth✨.
The total prize tag for the Kepler Space Telescope program stands at a relatively modest $700 million.
RIP KST 😢.