NASA uses solar power to get crippled Kepler back to work

Planet-hunting space telescope is back on the job thanks to clever engineering

Despite two broken wheels had NASA's planet-hunting telescope spinning out of control, the Kepler Space Telescope is using the power of the sun to continue its search for Earth-like planets.

NASA announced that it even though the space telescope is down from four to two working wheels, the agency has approved a plan that will keep Kepler working for at least another two years. This newly reconfigured mission has been dubbed K2.

The telescope, launched in 2009, lost the use of one of the four wheels that control its orientation in space in May 2013. That was the telescope's second wheel failure.

With the loss of the second wheel, NASA could no longer manipulate the telescope's positioning and ground engineers struggled to communicate with it since the communications link went in and out as the spacecraft spun uncontrollably.

Several months later, NASA engineers reported that they were unable to get the two disabled wheels working properly again so Kepler would be unable to continue its original planet-hunting mission. At that point, NASA was working to figure out what other scientific research -- like searching for asteroids, comets or supernovas -- Kepler could do in its diminished capacity.

However, scientists came up with a way to keep the telescope focused on its original planet-hunting mission.

Engineers, according to NASA, discovered they could use the sun's radiation pressure to actually balance the telescope in space.

Protons of sunlight exert pressure on the spacecraft, NASA explained. If the telescope is positioned exactly, it can be balanced against the pressure like a pencil can be balanced on your finger. That means the telescope can be positioned without the use of the two damaged wheels.

The spacecraft will be rotated periodically to prevent sunlight from affecting the telescope lens.

The spacecraft will be able to focus on a specific part of the sky for about 83 days. After that point, the telescope will be rotated to protect the telescope from the sun. NASA expects Kepler to complete four of these studies every year.

The first K2 science observation is set to begin May 30.

The new mission comes with two years of funding to continue the hunt for Earth-like exoplanets. However, it also calls for Kepler to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae.

Even if Kepler had not been able to get back to work, William Borucki, the Kepler mission's principal science investigator, noted last year that the space telescope had already sent back enough data to keep scientists busy for another two to three years.

"The Kepler mission has been spectacularly successful," Borucki said. "With the completion of Kepler observations, we know the universe is full of Earth-like planets.... The most exciting discoveries are going to come in the next few years as we analyze this data."

He added that he expected that within two years scientists should be able to answer the question of whether Earth is unique or a common kind of planet in our galaxy.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA uses solar power to get crippled Kepler back to work" was originally published by Computerworld.

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