(Sen) - NASA's planet hunting Kepler space telescope may have some hope left in it yet for its extended mission.
Data collecting was suspended in May when the telescope lost its second reaction wheel, one of four that is intended to keep it pointing at a location in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations informally known as the "Kepler field." (The spacecraft requires three reaction wheels at a minimum to keep a steady gaze.)
After weeks of media and scientist speculation about the telescope's future, NASA announced last week that is preparing a possible rescue for the telescope, which is now working beyond its original three-year design life.
"The engineering team has devised initial tests for the recovery attempt and is checking them on the spacecraft test bed at the Ball Aerospace facility in Boulder, Colorado," read a July 3 update on the Kepler mission manager blog.
"The team anticipates that exploratory commanding of Kepler’s reaction wheels will commence mid-to-late July."
How the view might look from the outermost of the planets in Gliese 667C's habitable zone. Its home star shines brightest. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
While Kepler is on the sidelines, discoveries are still being announced from the wealth of data captured during its time in operation.
One prominent discovery was announced in late June, when astronomers (partially using Kepler data) revealed that Gliese 667C is a star that possibly has six planets orbiting it, including three new "super-Earths". Some of these planets are in the star's habitable zone.
Additionally, in July researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics uncovered two planets (less than three times the size of Earth) circling sun-like stars in NGC 6811, a billion-year-old star cluster.
Confirmed planets with the Kepler mission total 134 so far, with more likely to come as researchers to continue to examine the vast amount of data collected.
Kepler was launched in 2009 with the aim to find Earth-like planets nearby other stars. It began an extended mission in November 2012 funded the operation of the telescope until 2016. In three and a half years of operations at its permanent orbit near the sun, it has found 3,277 planetary candidates to date with sizes ranging from smaller than the moon to immense gas giants.
While the space telescope is no longer functional, there are other observatories that are looking for planets on the ground. One example is the European Southern Observatory's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an instrument fitted on La Silla Observatory in Chile. Since its installation in 2002, the instrument has uncovered dozens of planets.
Further, NASA is working on a new observatory called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Provisionally set to launch in 2017, it will use an array of 56 telescopes to scan a much wider area than Kepler was able to do, which probably will sweep up more exoplanets than seen previously.