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Two wheels on the Kepler spacecraft stopped spinning, leaving the planet-hunting telescope stranded in space. (Detlev van Ravenswaay / Picture Press / Getty Images)

Lost in Space?

NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft may be in trouble

By Joe Bubar | May 23 , 2013
<p>Kepler’s primary mission has been to find a planet similar to Earth that could support life. (NASA) </p>

Kepler’s primary mission has been to find a planet similar to Earth that could support life. (NASA)

The search for life on other planets may have stalled in space. Since 2009, a spacecraft named Kepler has been hunting for planets similar to Earth. Some of these planets could have life on them. But on May 15, NASA, the United States space agency, announced that Kepler has broken down.

Kepler has four wheels that help steer it and point its telescope. But last week, one of the wheels stopped spinning. It’s the second wheel to break down since Kepler was launched. With two broken wheels, the spacecraft can’t function. Kepler’s programming put the spacecraft to sleep so that it would not damage itself further.

NASA isn’t giving up on Kepler just yet. It says it plans to try to restart the wheel and continue hunting for planets. But the future doesn’t look too bright for the spacecraft.

PLANET HUNT

Even if this is the end for Kepler, the mission has achieved a lot. Floating in space up to 40 million miles from Earth, Kepler has discovered 132 planets. It has also found an additional 2,700 objects that could be planets. These findings will be analyzed, then classified, keeping scientists busy for years.

How did Kepler find all those planets? It uses an instrument that keeps track of the brightness of stars. When a planet passes in front of a star during its orbit (invisible circular path), the brightness of the star drops. Kepler detects this and sends a signal to the NASA research center. Scientists there then make a graph of the star’s brightness. If they see a pattern of repeating drops in brightness, it means that a planet is crossing in front of the star.

LOOKING FOR LIFE

Kepler’s mission has been to find another Earth circling one of the billions of stars that exist outside our solar system (or neighborhood of planets that orbit the sun). In other words, it has been looking for a planet that is not too hot and not too cold, and, therefore, may have life on it.

So far, Kepler hasn’t found another Earth. But many scientists still believe that one exists. They hope to identify a planet capable of supporting life from all of the Kepler data, or information, that’s been collected.

In the meantime, NASA is already designing Kepler’s replacement. They hope to develop a new planet-hunting spacecraft, called Tess, by 2017. For now, Kepler is “parked” in space, and its remaining power is being saved while scientists work to get its wheels spinning once again.

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