UPDATED | NASA’s Kepler Telescope Recovers From “Emergency Mode”

April 11, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's conception of the Kepler telescope
Photo credit: NASA

Houston, we have a problem.

Updated: NASA just announced that Kepler has been successfully recovered from Emergency Mode.

NASA spent the weekend desperately trying to resuscitate its planet-hunting spacecraft, Kepler, after it unexpectedly entered “emergency mode” (EM).

During a scheduled contact on Thursday, April 7, mission operations engineers discovered that Kepler was running at its “lowest operational” level, and that it was burning through a huge amount of fuel.

“Recovering from EM is the team's priority at this time,” wrote mission manager Charlie Sobeck in an update on Friday. “The mission has declared a spacecraft emergency, which provides priority access to ground-based communications at the agency's Deep Space Network.”

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The last regular contact with Kepler was on April 4, and there were no signs that anything was wrong with the spacecraft at that time. NASA has no idea what could have prompted the entry into EM, but they note that it happened just before they began pointing the spacecraft towards the center of the Milky Way — the beginning of a new planetary survey.

Kepler completed its original mission back in 2012, and during that time, it detected nearly 5,000 suspected exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), 1,000 of which have since been confirmed by researchers.

However, Kepler has been on a new mission since 2014, known as K2, expanding its search to include young stars and supernovae. In the past year alone, it has discovered something so-far unexplainable orbiting a distant star, the first-ever shockwave coming off a supernova, and the most Earth-like exoplanet to date.

With its new focus on the center of the Milky Way, the spacecraft was going to search for stray planets wandering between stars, any Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of their stars, and outer planets at the edge of their solar systems.

“The chance for the K2 mission to use gravity to help us explore exoplanets is one of the most fantastic astronomical experiments of the decade,” said the mission's project scientist, Steve Howell in a mission report.

However, the telescope needs to get out of EM to do that. And due to Kepler’s distance from Earth, communications are slow. “Even at the speed of light, it takes 13 minutes for a signal to travel to the spacecraft and back,” writes Sobeck in the update. There was real fear that our best chance at finding a potentially habitable planet outside our solar system was slipping away.

But luckily, thanks to the quick response and determination of the engineers, Kepler was recovered. “We are deeply appreciative of their efforts, and for the outpouring of support from the mission's fans and followers from around the world,” said Sobeck in today’s announcement.

This is not the first time Kepler has run into problems.

According to ScienceAlert, back in 2013, NASA said the spacecraft was “beyond repair” when the wheels that control the telescope’s aim failed. Brilliantly, scientists overcame that problem by using the sun’s energy to push Kepler’s solar panels, which meant they could once again control the direction of the telescope.

We can thank the best and brightest at NASA for saving the 600-million-dollar space telescope from early retirement. Kepler will continue its mission into the Milky Way, and will likely discover new and exciting objects along the way!

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