One of NASA’s most powerful space telescopes is running out of fuel

16 Mar 2018

An illustration of the Kepler Space Telescope, now entering its final few months of life. Image: NASA

The fuel tank of the space telescope key to the discovery of thousands of distant exoplanets is about to run dry, NASA confirmed.

NASA is preparing for a life without the Kepler Space Telescope after confirming that five years after the ending of its primary mission, the spacecraft is about to run out of fuel.

Based on initial calculations, Kepler’s systems engineer, Charlie Sobeck, believes it has about seven months of reserves left, but admits that they have been wrong in the past about how fuel-efficient the craft is.

Unlike a car, which flashes a light to tell you it’s low on fuel, NASA has to monitor whether there’s a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and change in performance of the thrusters.

With just a few months left of Kepler’s life, NASA said that it will now try to gather as much data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means it can’t aim the spacecraft for data transfer.

In 2013, Kepler seemed doomed to failure as its primary mission could not be completed because a key component broke far out in space, rendering it unable to hold its gaze steady at the original field of view.

With no repair crews to fix it, NASA’s engineers managed to come up with a remote fix by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, like a kayak steering into the current, and thus ‘K2’ was born.

This extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months. While it was estimated that K2 could complete 10 campaigns with this fix, here we are years later on mission number 17.

Haul of exoplanets

It has been a great run for the Kepler telescope, which has delivered such a bounty of information on some of the most fascinating exoplanets discovered so far.

In 2016, it made headlines around the world for revealing the single largest haul of exoplanets in one sitting, totalling 1,284.

Then, it located a truly strange planet, which later went on to reveal that on one of its sides, it snows ‘sunscreen’ in the form of titanium oxide.

But perhaps one of Kepler’s greatest achievements was its part in the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains seven Earth-like planets, six of which could contain liquid water.

So now, 151 million km away from Earth, Kepler will hopefully have one last hurrah with the return of important astronomical data.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic