After a nine-year mission into deep space to hunt for planets, the Kepler space telescope has finally been decommissioned. Having discovered more than 2,600 planets outside of our solar system, the telescope has finally run out of fuel and will cease operations.
The telescope was launched by NASA back in 2009 and was originally intended to be on mission for just three and a half years. It continued operating past that, but at the four year mark there was a mechanical failure of the craft that temporarily halted operations. Fortunately the NASA scientists were able to come up with a workaround in which they switched the telescope’s field of view every few months, which enabled them to continue collecting data for another five years. But in March 2018, NASA announced that the craft was running out of fuel and would soon stop broadcasting entirely.
Now that time has come and the telescope will no longer send any data back to Earth. But the telescope leaves an amazing legacy: data collected on thousands of planets outside of our solar system, all of which is now publicly accessible. The data is available in the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, where scientists from around the world can download and study it to learn more about the galaxy we live in.
When it was launched in 2009, the Kepler telescope had the largest digital camera ever outfitted for outer space observations, and with this powerful technology it was able to begin its explorations by observing an area of 150,000 stars in a dense area of the Cygnus constellation. It was the first NASA mission to detect Earth-sized planets outside of our solar system and gave researchers crucial information on the behavior of stars and the planets that orbit them. The data collected by the telescope has also been used to study the history of the Milky Way and to learn about how stars begin to go supernova — where a star explodes in a bright burst of light as it dies.
Overall the Kepler mission was a huge success that “wildly exceeded all our expectations“, according to associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen. Now scientists can continue benefiting from the trove of data acquired by this remarkable telescope.