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What’s Next for the Kepler Planet Hunter

NASA’s exoplanet hunter may be permanently disabled, but researchers say the best results are yet to come

3 min read
What’s Next for the Kepler Planet Hunter
New World: An artist’s rendition shows Kepler-62f, a “super-Earth” in the habitable zone of a star 1200 light-years from Earth.
Image: Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA

In early August, the moment thatBill Borucki had been dreading finally arrived. As the principal investigator of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, Borucki had been working with his colleagues to restore the spacecraft’s ability to precisely point itself. The planet-hunting telescope has four reaction wheels—essentially, electrically driven flywheels—and at least three must be functional to maintain positioning. But in the past year, two of those wheels had been on the fritz. One went off line in July 2012 after showing elevated levels of friction, and a second followed suit in May 2013, effectively ending science operations. After a few months of recovery efforts, the telescope team was finally forced to call it quits, six months after the mission was originally scheduled to finish but years before they hoped it would.

The failures mark the end of an era for Kepler. With only two reaction wheels, the telescope can’t steady itself well enough to ensure that light from each star hits the same fraction of a pixel on its charge-coupled devices for months on end without deviation. That’s what Kepler needs in order to detect, with high precision, the transit of a planet: the slight dip in the brightness of a star that occurs when an orbiting planet crosses in front of it.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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