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 that Bill 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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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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