Mission engineers are preparing to turn off the spacecraft's radio transmitters, leaving it to forever orbit around the Sun. It was designed for an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, which gave the spacecraft a thermally stable environment and let it remain on a single pointing for all of the prime Kepler mission.
Scientists will continue to search for planets using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched earlier this year, the James Webb Space Telescope now scheduled for launch in 2021, and future spacecraft. Its positioning system broke down in 2013, about four years after its launch, though scientists found a way to keep it operational.
Data pile After observing more than half a million stars over the course of the mission, Kepler's data has revealed that the most common exoplanet lies somewhere between the scale of Earth and Neptune. That number includes about 50 worlds that may be about the same size and temperature as Earth.
"Basically, Kepler opened the gate for mankind's exploration of the cosmos", William Borucki, Kepler's now-retired chief investigator, told reporters. Kepler has performed an excellent job for the past 9 years and a half, discovering thousands of exoplanets. It is a possible "water world" the size of Earth, perhaps covered with oceans and with a water-based atmosphere. TESS is on a two-year, $337 million mission.
A series of huge new terrestrial telescopes now under construction will also be able to analyze exoplanet atmospheres spectroscopically, and look for signs of life such as the presence of oxygen gas and water vapor. Recently, the MAST archive team won a NASA Group award for their work in hosting the Kepler data sets.
The telescope is now scanning 85% of the night sky, staring down distant solar systems and hunting for small, rocky, Earth-like planets in the process. It began science operations in late July, as Kepler was waning, and is looking for planets orbiting 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars to Earth.
Discovery Of Earth 2.0. It found inferno-like gas giants, rocky planets, planets orbiting binary stars, Earth-size planets, planets in the habitable zone capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, planets twice the size of Earth, the strangely flickering Tabby's Star, new details about the TRAPPIST-1 planetsand, in December, an eight-planet system.
A successor to Kepler launched in April, NASA's Tess spacecraft, has its sights on stars closer to home.
"The search for planets is the search for life", said Natalie Batalha, a longtime Kepler mission scientist now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a conference in 2017.
TESS will short-list the distant worlds through most likely to be harbor life - with subsequent follow-up using JWST instrumentation and the coming generation of 30 m-class ground telescopes to look for signs of life.
NASA originally launched the telescope in 2009 for a one-year planet-hunting mission.
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