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After nine years of success, the Kepler space telescope is running out of fuel, which will force an end to the mission sometime in the next several months.
The Kepler team is planning to collect as much science data as possible in its remaining time and beam it back to Earth before the loss of the fuel-powered thrusters means that we can’t aim the spacecraft for data transfer. We even have plans to take some final calibration data with the last bit of fuel, if the opportunity presents itself.
Without a gas gauge, we have been monitoring the spacecraft for warning signs of low fuel— such as a drop in the fuel tank’s pressure and changes in the performance of the thrusters. But in the end, we only have an estimate – not precise knowledge. Taking these measurements helps us decide how long we can comfortably keep collecting scientific data.
They are doing a dance here. If they run out of fuel while collecting data, that data will be lost. If they stop collecting data too soon, however, to transmit it to Earth, they will not maximize the data obtained.
Meanwhile, the next exoplanet hunter, TESS, is scheduled for launch on April 16 on a Falcon 9 rocket.