Kepler, the planet-hunting space telescope, is dead

3,000 potential exoplanets later, a failed reaction wheel means the end of the Kepler mission.

The Kepler telescope, a one tonne satellite launched in 2009 to scan for planets outside of our solar system, is dead.

Over the four years of its mission, the spacecraft has found over 3,000 stars which might have planets orbiting them, and the earth-based analysis has confirmed 134 planets orbiting 76 of them.

In April, the mission even announced the discovery of two potentially habitable planets. The two were roughly earth sized, and roughly earth temperature as well. Each of them might just lie in the "habitable zone", where liquid water can potentially exist.

Sadly, shortly after that discovery, Kepler ran into problems. The telescope manoeuvres through space with four reaction wheels, which keep it pointing in the right direction using a gyroscope effect. In July 2012, one of the wheels failed, but the mission was designed to only require three to accurately aim. In May this year, however, a second wheel failed. Yesterday, Nasa announced that they had given up trying to fix the wheels. Kepler can no longer be targeted accurately.

But, good news! Rumours of Kepler's death have been greatly exaggerated (by me, in paragraph one. Sorry.), because while the telescope can't be aimed any more, it's still useful. The imaging functionality works fine, and with two remaining reaction wheels and a limited amount of thruster fuel left it's even got a bit of manoeuvrability. NASA has opened it up to the community to work out the best way to make use of what's left working; one proposal, for instance, involves heavily post-processing the images to remove drift caused by the lack of a third wheel.

There's hope for the mission yet, which is great, because as Ars Technica's John Timmer writes, there's a lot more to learn:

A longer mission would identify planets further from their host stars. To identify a candidate, Kepler needs to see it pass between Earth and the star the exoplanet orbits three times. The further out a planet is, the longer one orbit takes, so the longer it will need to do three passes. As such, the existing data is heavily biased toward planets that orbit very close to their host stars; this also means that most of the potentially habitable planets we've spotted are orbiting dwarf stars, which are dim enough that water can remain liquid close in.

In other words, we simply haven't looked long enough to detect planets in a habitable zone around energetic stars. We have a much better picture of the diversity of exoplanets, but it's far from a complete one.

Kepler. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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