NASA made a sad announcement this afternoon: its planet hunting spacecraft Kepler has been retired after running out of fuel. Scientists knew this day was coming, having first revealed the low-fuel state to the public this past summer. Researchers took steps to conserve the remaining fuel, including strategic use of hibernation states, but the fateful day has already arrived.
Kepler has spent the last nine years in deep space hunting exoplanets that are otherwise hidden from humanity’s view. During the near-decade of its life, Kepler found evidence of more than 2,600 planets located beyond our solar system. Some of them are believed to be candidates for possibly containing life.
Kepler was NASA’s first planet hunting mission, one it didn’t expect to last as long as it did. The spacecraft itself is fine, by all accounts; rather, it no longer has any fuel left to continue powering its operations. Talking about the work is NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen, who said:
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. 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.
The space agency says it has decided to retire Kepler while it is located in its present orbit, which it describes as safe and away from Earth. At the time of its launch, the telescope featured the largest digital camera ever tasked with space observation. After completing its initial mission, NASA tasked Kepler with its extended K2 mission, which resulted in the spacecraft having surveyed more than half a million stars.