Editorial Feature

NASA's Kepler Space Telescope to Begin New Missions?

NASA's Kepler Telescope - Watch this Space?

Image Credit Nasa.gov

The Kepler Space Telescope has been a revolutionary tool for NASA. Since its launch in 2009, the $600m Telescope has successfully accomplished its initial objectives of identifying new potentially habitable planets far away from Earth. For it's prime mission, Kepler was designed to efficiently survey a large number of stars in order to:

  • Determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  • Accurately plot the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  • Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivity, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  • Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  • Understand the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.
  • Attempt to allow scientists to estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems.

In November 2012 - Kepler completed this prime mission and began a further 4 year extended mission but unfortunately has recently experienced hardware failures that directly impact it's ability to focus with extreme accuracy.

In its relatively short but successful life, Kepler has managed to identify and confirm 135 planets that lie beyond our solar system with the data of thousands more potential new planets in its database ready to be investigated. However, after months of testing and work by NASA scientists and engineers, the attempts to restore the craft to full working order (after some recent equipment failures that mean the telescope cannot hold as steady as is required to continue its current long range analysis) have been unsuccessful and NASA is now exploring further potential missions with the equipment in its existing state.

The hope is that with such an array of scientific capability on-board, NASA can find another suitable use for the amazing telescope on board - even if it only has 2 of the original 4 gyroscope-like reaction wheels in full operation. Unsurprising when you look at the capability of the technology on-board:

  • Spacebased Photometer: 0.95-m aperture
  • Primary mirror: 1.4 meter diameter, 85% light weighted
  • Detectors: 95 mega pixels (21 modules each with two 2200x1024 pixel CCDs)
  • Bandpass: 430-890 nm FWHM
  • Dynamic range: 9th to 16th magnitude stars
  • Fine guidance sensors: 4 CCDs located on science focal plane
  • Attitude stability: <9 milli-arcsec, 3 sigma over 15 minutes.
  • Avionics: Fully block redundant
  • Science data storage: >60 days
  • Uplink X-band: 7.8125 bps to 2 kbps
  • Downlink X-band: 10 bps to 16 kbps
  • Downlink Ka-band: Up to 4.33125 Mbps

Photometric One-Sigma Noise Designed Performance:

  • Total noise with solar-like stellar variability and photon shot noise for an mv=12 star: < 2x10-5

An impressive piece of kit with some serious capability that NASA is now looking for new potential missions for.

 

Kepler Spacecraft and Photometer - Image Credit Nasa.gov

 

So what next for Kepler? NASA is currently working on a number of opportunities and studies to make a decision on the best possible future use for a two-wheel Kepler mission - so watch this space!

 

 

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