NASA's planet-seeking Kepler space telescope may run out of fuel within several months

NASA's Kepler 'K2' mission has already completed 16 campaigns, and this month entered its 17th.

NASA's planet-seeking Kepler space telescope may run out of fuel within several months
Image courtesy: NASA

New Delhi: NASA's planet-hunting space telescope, Kepler, is nearing its end as it is running low on fuel, NASA has revealed.

Trailing Earth’s orbit at 94 million miles away, Kepler has time and again come up with amazing discoveries, revealing great secrets about our solar system.

Whether it is a new planet, a number of stars – even exploding ones – or a circumbinary planet, Kepler has never failed to disappoint the curious minds of space enthusiasts.

During its nine-year-long flight, Kepler has survived many potential knockouts, from mechanical failures to being blasted by cosmic rays, the space telescope may run out of fuel within several months, says NASA.

In 2013, Kepler’s primary mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke, rendering it unable to hold its gaze steady at the original field of view.

Using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, the spacecraft was given a new lease on life and was reborn as 'K2'.

The extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months in what we refer to as a “campaign.”

According to NASA, the Kepler team initially estimated that the K2 mission could conduct 10 campaigns with the remaining fuel. It turns out they were overly conservative. The mission has already completed 16 campaigns, and this month entered its 17th.

The Kepler team, in the meantime, is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can't aim the spacecraft for data transfer. Plans have also been made to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself.

Kepler is currently being monitored for warning signs of low fuel, such as a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters.

However, without a gas gauge, the team can only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements will help decide how long the team can comfortably keep collecting scientific data, NASA reported.