Bad news for exoplanet lovers: Kepler is in trouble. There are gyroscopic wheels that help point the spacecraft towards its target stars (and planets!), and one of them is experiencing too much friction. They tried a few remedies, but none of them seemed to get rid of it. So now they’ve put the spacecraft in “safe mode” in hopes that a little rest will do it some good. (There’s a joke in there somewhere about my knees and ankles after a game of basketball.) If this doesn’t work, the team will likely have to try more drastic measures that could shorten the lifetime of the mission, worsen the quality of the data it takes… or perhaps both.
I’m not an expert in this part of things, but what little I know about them suggests this could be very problematic to the mission nailing its main objective: measuring the percentage of stars with terrestrial-sized planets in the habitable zone. (Although if you look into the literature, you’ll see people are already extrapolating from Kepler data to get at this number, even though the mission’s survey is still incomplete.) Also, an interesting note here is that the spacecraft and its instruments have performed well enough to have completed this survey… but nature has gotten in the way, as more “noise” coming from stars has caused the mission to need more time. If it doesn’t have that extra time, or if that time is associated with more “noise” coming from the friction in the wheel (or the things done to counteract it), that could mean trouble.
Hopefully, this is a “bump in the road” and the downtime will do the spacecraft some good. I’m optimistic that will be the case. But even in a worst-case scenario, the science that came out of the Kepler mission will have forever changed the way we view the Universe. Despite my very minor quibbles (and they are just that), I’m always going to be awed by what this team accomplished. It’s not just what they did, but that they did it by overcoming significant political hurdles and technical challenges, that’s so impressive. I’ll write about all that later. Hopefully, it’s much later.