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NASA Works to Fix Kepler, the Planet-hunting Telescope

Jul 20, 2013 12:18 PM EDT
It's official: NASA's Kepler telescope is no longer capable of carrying out its original planet-hunting mission.
(Photo : NASA)

NASA is currently engaged in an effort to fix the Kepler telescope, which is primarily tasked with hunting for planets outside our solar system.

Problems began when the telescope suffered a failure in one of its reaction wheels designed to keep it orbiting back in May. In July, a second followed. Kepler requires three reaction wheels in order to control the precision pointing needed to resume data collection for the exoplanet search, NASA reports.

Currently located some 45 million miles from Earth, however, Kepler is far outside the range of any possible rendezvous by astronauts.

The US agency says it plans on reporting on their progress (or lack thereof) later this month. The first round of tests have shown the craft indicated that the wheel that shut down in May spun counterclockwise, but didn't respond to commands to turn clockwise.

"While this is a positive start, it is very early in the multi-stepped process to characterize the performance of the reaction wheels and to determine if one of them could return to operation," Roger Hunter, Kepler's project manager, said in a statement, according to CNN.

Launched in 2009, the telescope has been able to identify 135 planets and 3,277 other candidates over the last few years.

According to The New York Times, it has focused largely on stars in the constellations Cygnas and Lyra, "looking for dips in starlight caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of their suns."

In April, astronomers announced that the telescope had discovered two distant worlds that may be among the best candidates for habitable planets scientists are aware of. Then in June, it identified the first transiting planets in a star cluster, demonstrating that small planets can survive in densely packed environments.

Utlimately, scientists have noted that, regardless of whether or not the telescope can be fixed, the information it has amassed already is enough to keep researchers busy for years to come.

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