Skip to main content

Planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft in trouble

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed May 15, 2013
This diagram lines up planets recently discovered by Kepler in terms of their sizes, compared to Earth. Kepler-22b was announced in December 2011; the three Super-Earths were announced April 18, 2013. All of them could potentially host life, but we do not yet know anything definitive about their compositions or atmosphere. This diagram lines up planets recently discovered by Kepler in terms of their sizes, compared to Earth. Kepler-22b was announced in December 2011; the three Super-Earths were announced April 18, 2013. All of them could potentially host life, but we do not yet know anything definitive about their compositions or atmosphere.
HIDE CAPTION
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
Where life might live beyond Earth
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Kepler space observatory has identified 132 new planets
  • A control wheel has stopped responding, leaving the craft unable to aim precisely at stars
  • "We're not ready to call the mission over," NASA official says

(CNN) -- The future of NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space observatory was in question Wednesday after a part that helps aim the spacecraft stopped working, the U.S. space agency said.

Controllers found Tuesday that Kepler had gone into a "safe mode" and one of the reaction wheels needed to orient the spacecraft would not spin, Associate NASA Administrator John Grunsfeld told reporters. NASA engineers are trying to figure out whether they can get the balky part back into service or whether they can resume control by another method, Grunsfeld said.

"We're not ready to call the mission over," he said. But at roughly 40 million miles from Earth, "Kepler is not in a place where I can go up and rescue it."

Another Earth called a certainty

2009: Kepler telescope launch

The Kepler mission has identified 132 planets beyond our solar system since its launch in 2009, leading scientists to believe that most stars in our galaxy have planets circling them. It has gone into a "safe mode" with its solar panels facing back at the sun, giving controllers intermittent communication with the craft as it spins.

Three new planets could host life

The probe was built with four reaction wheels and needs three of them -- one for each axis -- to aim its telescope precisely at a distant star, deputy project manager Charlie Sobeck said. One failed in July 2012, leaving it with only two functioning wheels at this time, Sobeck said.

Kepler shut itself down after it was pointing in the wrong direction, Sobeck said. He said it was "reasonable to suspect" the failure of the reaction wheel was the cause, but scientists hadn't confirmed that.

More news about Kepler

The $600 million mission was designed to operate for three and a half to six years. Even if controllers are unable to return it to service, NASA said the mission has produced enough data to keep scientists busy for up to two years.

"Another four years would have been frosting on the cake, but we have a nice cake now," said William Borucki, the project's principal scientist.

More space and science news from CNN Light Years

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter

CNN Correspondent John Zarrella contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Space
updated 4:19 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
It's hard to top the tricky, first-ever landing on a comet but we'll try. Here are 11 other space missions to know about.
updated 5:27 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
November 2014 may well be remembered as the time when humanity first landed a robotic probe on the nucleus of a comet.
updated 6:21 PM EST, Fri November 7, 2014
Add another entry to the growing list of crazy footage captured by GoPro cameras.
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Sat November 1, 2014
It is in our DNA to explore the unknown. But pushing boundaries and exploring space is far from easy.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
If there's one thing we've learned about the CNN iReport community, it's that you all love to capture celestial events.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
It was the closest comet near-miss known to astronomers, but everything is alright.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
It wasn't a trick. But for space geeks, it sure was a treat.
updated 8:25 PM EDT, Sun October 12, 2014
Want to ride an elevator into space? A breakthrough in nanotechnology could mean we will be riding into space on a cable made of diamonds.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Astronauts lie motionless in a row of compartments with medical monitoring cables connected to their bodies, as their space ship cuts through the silent blackness.
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
This image from the Hubble Space Telescope indicates that a huge ring of dark matter likely exists surrounding the center of CL0024+17 that has no normal matter counterpart.
Scientists are closer to seeing a vast, invisible universe as a spectrometer in Earth orbit picks up possible clues of dark matter.
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Soviets sent stray dogs up to conquer space. This is what happened next
updated 5:20 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Scientists believe that a hot gas bubble was formed by multiple supernovas.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robonaut is the next generation dexterous robot
Life aboard the International Space Station.
updated 9:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
NASA's New Horizons mission hurtles toward Pluto in historic 3 billion mile expedition.
updated 11:56 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
updated 11:51 AM EDT, Sun June 29, 2014
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT