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NASA unveils plans to bring Kepler space telescope back to life in search for new planets

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Kepler assembly (Credit: Ball Aerospace)
Kepler assembly (Credit: Ball Aerospace)

The Kepler space telescope may have life left in it yet. Back in August, NASA elected to abandon attempts to repair the spacecraft after two of its gyroscope-like reaction wheels failed. Without at least three wheels working to stabilize the craft in orbit, it was left unable to precisely pinpoint exoplanets in distant solar systems. After making a call for new proposals on how to extend Kepler's mission, NASA is preparing to present a new plan called K2 that outlines how Kepler can harness the power of the sun to point it in the right direction.

Using the sun to direct the Kepler telescope

Solar energy powers the Kepler telescope, but photons emitted by the sun also influence its position. Without functioning wheels to counteract solar pressure, it starts to pitch and roll, losing the precision it needs to locate faraway worlds. However, the plan in K2 will allow researchers to take advantage of this same solar pressure to help stabilize the telescope. By positioning Kepler's solar panels almost parallel to its orbital path around the sun, photons will hit the craft evenly, allowing it to focus on a single point in space — though for limited periods of time. NASA intends on proposing the mission for the 2014 budget.

The Kepler space telescope has discovered 167 confirmed exoplanets since its launch in 2009, and K2 may just allow Kepler to add to that list in years to come. Testing into how long Kepler can maintain the accuracy it needs to locate new planets is currently underway. We've reached out to NASA for comment.