Malfunction Could Mark the End of NASA's Kepler Mission

Kaput? NASA engineers are trying to fix the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft.


One of the most successful missions in NASA history may be coming to an end. NASA officials announced this afternoon that the Kepler spacecraft, which has found more than 2700 planetary candidates outside the solar system, has lost the ability to point in a specified direction due to the malfunctioning of one of its reaction wheels. The spacecraft has been put into safe mode while engineers attempt to figure out how to resolve the malfunction.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission completed its 3.5-year planned run last year, winning plaudits from planetary scientists. The spacecraft monitors some 150,000 sunlike stars in search of transiting planets. In November 2012, the mission began an extension of an additional 3.5 years, and officials were hopeful that it would continue beaming back data until 2016.

That now looks uncertain following the failure of the second of its four reaction wheels, officials announced at a telecom this afternoon. One of the wheels failed last year, and the spacecraft needs three reaction wheels to be pointed precisely. Mission managers learned of the latest failure earlier this week.

Engineers must either regain functionality of one of the two broken wheels or find another way of pointing the spacecraft as desired. "We are not down and out," says Charles Sobeck, deputy project manager for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "The spacecraft is safe and stable. We'll proceed with our investigation."

Sobeck says that "the mission itself has been spectacularly successful. We have lots of data on the ground still to pore through. The next question is going to be what the future of the mission looks like."