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 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 4:44 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
Rosetta spacecraft arrives at its destination, Comet 67P after a 10-year journey around the solar system.
After a 10-year chase the Rosetta spacecraft is now orbiting a comet
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
"Here comes the sun" indeed, and it was just barely all right.
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Seems NASA's fascination with the moon is in the past. It's focused on something far more menacing: incoming asteroids
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 3:39 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The U.S. Army brainchild "Project Horizon" was born. Its proposal to leap beyond the Soviets opened with the line: "There is a requirement for a manned military outpost on the moon."
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
The full moons of this summer -- July 12, August 10 and September 9 -- are supermoons, as NASA calls them.
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 9:47 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The U.S. space shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But after three long years, NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.
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 7:03 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The sun is putting on a fireworks show again.
updated 7:02 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
A year is a very long time on Mars -- 687 days. NASA's Curiosity rover can attest that it's enough time for some unexpected life changes.
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
At least one corner of the solar system may be serving up an ice-and-water sandwich, with the possibility of life on the rocks.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
You can't see it happening on Earth, but space itself is stretching. Ever since the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been getting bigger.
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