NASA’s Kepler telescope having serious technical problems

The Kepler Space Telescope spies planets orbiting other starsThe Kepler Space Telescope has been generating a lot of excitement in the past few years by finding signs of planets orbiting around other stars, but it's also been causing a lot of worry for NASA lately, as a persistent technical problem threatens to put the telescope's future at risk.

The problem lies with the four wheels that the telescope uses to keep its instruments trained on the stars it watches for transiting planets. It needs three of these wheels to operate, with one spare just in case of a failure. However, one of them, #2, already failed back in July 2012, and another, #4, started showing problems shortly thereafter.

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NASA gave the telescope a 10-day 'rest period' back in January, hoping that the break would let the lubricant in the wheel track even out and reduce the friction in the system. However, after bringing Kepler back online and observing it in action again, the mission page posted an update, saying that there didn't seem to be any improvement and the friction problem persisted.

"The part that worries us is that the elevated friction that we're seeing in wheel number four now is very reminiscent of what we saw a year ago in wheel number two, which eventually failed," said Kepler deputy project manager Charlie Sobeck, according to SPACE.com.

"Wheel two had elevated friction for about six months, a little bit more than that, before it finally failed. Now we're going on four months of elevated friction here on wheel number four. So we're certainly concerned that we may be on the same kind of path here."

Now, as of the most recent mission update, the team appears to be switching their efforts to figuring out plans if wheel #4 fails sooner, rather than later.

"While the wheel may still continue to operate for some time yet, the engineering team has now turned its attention to the development of contingency actions should the wheel fail sooner, rather than later," wrote Kepler mission manager Roger Hunter. "Initially, these contingencies will focus on preserving fuel, but subsequent goals will be to return the failed wheels to service, perhaps at reduced performance levels, and investigating opportunities for gathering science data using a combination of wheels and thrusters."

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Given what Kepler has already accomplished, discovering over 2,700 planet candidates and 122 confirmed planets, this is some fairly disappointing news. There are other missions in the works or being planned that will replace Kepler, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), but the earliest they'll be online is 2017, which will leave quite a gap if Kepler fails in the near future.

Perhaps since NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have already been testing the CSA robot Dextre on satellite repair and refueling, we might be able to help out the Kepler team by fixing this wheel problem. Kepler is in orbit that has it trailing behind us as we both orbit around the Sun, so it would take some work to get Kepler over the ISS for repairs, but it might be worth it to keep this scientific gem shining bright.

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