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NASA’s Planet-Hunting Kepler Spacecraft Damaged, in Safe Mode, But Not “Down and Out”

Kepler Image

NASA had a press conference earlier today where they announced that the planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has gone into safe mode. It doesn’t look great for the mission at the moment, because when engineers brought the craft back to normal mode they found one of its reaction wheels is dead. It’s the second of the craft’s four wheels to die, which is bad because it needs a minimum of three.

The first of Kepler’s reaction wheels went down due to friction in July of 2012, but that was fine because it was essentially a spare. Now that a second wheel has gone, the craft can no longer deal with the impact of the Sun’s light to stay focused on its targeted stars. Engineers are hoping to develop a workaround where they can use the craft’s thrusters to do the job of correcting its trajectory and keeping it on target.

Kepler’s deputy project manager Charles Sobeck seemed to be holding on to some reserved hope saying, “We’re not down and out, but what the eventual performance we will get to, we just don’t know at this time.”

The craft is already beyond its initial expected mission of three and a half years, but NASA extended it to 2016. The future of the Kepler is uncertain at this point, but NASA has already announced plans for another planet-hunting craft called TESS to launch in 2017.

It would be nice if we all chipped in for a “Get Well Soon” gift for Kepler. Maybe a fruit basket, or that thing where they make pineapples look like flowers.

(via Wired, image via NASA)

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