In 2018 The Kepler Space Telescope Stopped Collecting Data, And NASA Has Decided Not To Fix It

In October 2018 NASA’s steadfast extraterrestrial-hunter, the pioneering Kepler Space Telescope, ceased collecting data. Indeed, the $600 million space observatory, which by this time had identified thousands of extraterrestrial planets, had inexplicably gone into sleep mode. And so, back on Earth, Kepler scientists scrambled to find out why.

From Star Trek to Star Wars, the idea of alien planets has been explored and expounded by science fiction for decades. However, scientists have yet to confirm the existence of even simple extraterrestrial life – let alone the grandiose alien civilizations depicted in our favorite sci-fi. Nonetheless, astronomical evidence of exoplanets – that is, planets orbiting stars outside our solar system – suggests a strong likelihood of alien life out there somewhere.

It was only after the invention of the telescope in the 17th century that hard evidence of other planets was finally discovered. Copernican astronomy entered mainstream thought, banishing the widespread notion that Earth was the center of the universe. Indeed, thanks to modern cosmology, the belief in worlds other than our own – an idea known as “cosmic pluralism” – is now widespread.

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Of course, some people believe not only in alien planets, but in technologically-advanced alien civilizations capable of exploring other worlds. Indeed, they might point toward the trove of visual “evidence” apparently depicting encounters with extraterrestrial visitors on Earth. These alleged proofs mushroomed with the advent of modern media such as photography, video and the world wide web.

The Roswell incident is one of the earliest and most famous supposed UFO encounters. Indeed, it has long cited by ufologists as an example of a coverup by the U.S. government. However, the curious object which allegedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 is claimed by the military to have been a surveillance balloon, not an alien spacecraft.

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Likewise, the U.S. Air Force site referred to as Area 51 has sparked considerable conjecture over the years. Many ufologists claim that it houses evidence of extraterrestrial technology, including a crashed spacecraft. The government itself has revealed little about the purpose of the facility, but it is likely used for developing experimental weapons and aircraft.

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At their most extreme, some UFO conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by David Icke, suggest that aliens are actually secretly embedded within human society. According to Icke, a breed of form-altering reptilian aliens known as the Archons maintain control over the planet through a hybrid race of global elites. Of course, his theories are not taken seriously by rational thinkers or the U.S. government.

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Which is not to say that the government has not previously taken UFO claims seriously. Indeed, from 1952 to 1970 the U.S. Air Force studied 12,618 accounts to consider the potential dangers posed by UFOs. Known as Project Blue Book, the scheme concluded that the majority of reported sightings were likely airplanes or natural occurrences.

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To date, space exploration has not confirmed science fiction’s fantasies of a cosmopolitan galaxy populated by intelligent, space-faring aliens. Nonetheless, the scientific community continues to regard the search for extraterrestrial beings as a worthy pursuit. Indeed, scientists regularly employ a number of methods to determine the potential for life on other planets.

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One of the first attempts to quantify alien civilizations in our galaxy was formulated by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961. The resulting speculative formula is, fittingly, known as the Drake equation. It is used to shed light on the physical factors required to build technologically-advanced societies on other planets.

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According to the SETI Institute – an organization formed in 1984 to find evidence of alien life – the Drake equation is “a simple, effective tool for stimulating intellectual curiosity about the universe around us. [It is useful] for helping us to understand that life as we know it is the end product of a natural, cosmic evolution, and for making us realize how much we are a part of that universe.”

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There is no one single answer to the Drake equation. It does, however, offer a starting point for considering how intelligent life might evolve in distant parts of the cosmos. It is thought that one possible marker of such life would be radio transmissions and other electromagnetic signals.

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“Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology,” the SETI Institute has stated on its website. “In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations.”

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In other words, the SETI Institute’s mission involves scanning outer space for alien radio transmissions. So far, life hasn’t been found, but that doesn’t mean alien civilizations don’t exist or won’t be identified in future. And monitoring the skies for electromagnetic communications is not the only method of searching for alien life.

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One other method involves identifying so-called biosignatures on meteorites and planets. For example, the presence of methane in the soil of Mars may be due to past or present microbial life – although further tests will be required to confirm this hypothesis. Indeed, Mars rovers such as Curiosity, are engaged with further analyses of the red planet’s habitability.

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Another method includes using powerful telescopes to identify potentially habitable exoplanets. Broadly speaking, to support carbon-based life as we know it, a habitable planet must be terrestrial rather than gaseous. It must also lie within the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) of the star it is orbiting. Also known as the “Goldilocks Zone”, the CHZ permits adequate atmospheric pressure for the presence of water.

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One telescope which can be used to look for exoplanets is the Kepler Space Telescope. Titled after the 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler, it was constructed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in collaboration with Ball Aerospace. The telescope was subsequently operated by the Ames Research Center, a NASA field center found in Silicon Valley in California.

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Launched into space on March 7, 2009, the telescope was placed into a so-called “Earth-trailing” orbit. That is, a slightly slower orbit than the Earth, which requires 371 days to complete. Its mission was to inspect the Milky Way for exoplanets and estimate the number of stars in the galaxy capable of harboring them.

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Specifically, Kepler used a photometer to observe changes in the light emitted by thousands of stars. In an occurrence known as a transit event, a passing exoplanet causes the light to diminish briefly. So, by tracking transit events, Kelper was able to complete a survey of the planets orbiting distant stars.

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But in October 2018 – shortly after NASA successfully downloaded data pertaining to a recent stargazing campaign – the Kepler Space Telescope went dark. Although the cause of the telescope’s shut down was not immediately clear, conspiracy theorists must have wondered if the observatory had glimpsed something significant. Something, perhaps, related to an alien civilization?

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The data gathered by Kepler suggests that for every star in the galaxy, there is also at least one planet. Therefore, there are thought to be some 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. And if just a tiny fraction of them are habitable – say, 0.1 percent – that means at least 100 million planets in our galaxy are potentially capable of harboring life.

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However, NASA scientists soon determined that the cause of the failure was not alien interference, but rather dwindling fuel levels. Indeed, the Kepler team had been aware of the observatory’s diminishing power for some time. They had even previously put the craft into a temporary sleep state to protect the information it had recently collected.

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But on October 30, 2018, NASA declared that the telescope would not be revived again. On that day, the Kepler Space Telescope was permanently shut down, concluding its nine-year mission. The craft had suffered numerous technical issues over its life, but ultimately it performed well.

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“Trailing Earth’s orbit at 94 million miles away,” wrote NASA in March 2018, “the Kepler space telescope has survived many potential knock-outs during its nine years in flight, from mechanical failures to being blasted by cosmic rays. At this rate, the hardy spacecraft may reach its finish line in a manner we will consider a wonderful success.”

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In fact, the purpose of Kepler was forced to change, after one of its four gyroscopic reaction wheels failed in 2012 – followed by another the year after. These wheels allowed the telescope to aim its gaze steadily. However, with only two in operation, its initial mission could not continue.

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But experts from NASA and Ball Aerospace refused to give up. They conducted a range of tests to determine what the telescope could do with just two working reaction wheels. They found that Kepler could still be aimed across the ecliptic plane – the area where planets circle the sun.

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In March 2014 Kepler was assigned a new mission. “The spacecraft was given a new lease on life by using the pressure of sunlight to maintain its pointing, like a kayak steering into the current,” wrote NASA in 2018. “Reborn as ‘K2,’ this extended mission requires the spacecraft to shift its field of view to new portions of the sky roughly every three months in what we refer to as a ‘campaign.’”

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But where Kepler’s initial purpose were determined by NASA, K2’s research directives were selected from proposals by astronomers. Those deemed important enough for further study were granted a data-gathering “campaign” lasting 80 days. K2 completed 19 campaigns in total.

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Thanks to K2, astrophysicists gleaned new revelations about the relationship between a star’s age and the pace with which it rotates. They were able to do this by pointing the telescope at relatively close stars bunched together. And then, knowing the estimated age of a star, they were able to extrapolate how many habitable planets might be orbiting it.

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K2 also delivered new insights into supernovae. A supernova occurs when a star dies, explodes and ejects its contents into space, providing the essential ingredients for new planets. Specifically, K2 was able to observe the initial stages of supernovae, offering clues about the physical forces which cause them.

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In line with its former mission, K2 also identified scores of exoplanets. But unlike the original Kepler assignment, those exoplanets lay within our “backyard” – that is, mere tens of light years beyond Earth. In effect, K2 completed a survey of some of our nearest planetary neighbors.

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Indeed, over the course of its 9-year lifespan, the Kepler Space Telescope reportedly identified 530,506 stars and 2,662 planets. Among them was Wolf 503b, an exoplanet twice as big as Earth and found 145 light years away. Another, Kepler-90i, is a scorching and stony world discovered by Kepler in December 2017 using Google algorithms.

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With Kepler now in permanent shutdown, the gauntlet has been passed to the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 18, 2018, the satellite located its first exoplanet just four months later. Known as HD 39091, the planet has been described as a “super-Earth” at 59.5 light years away.

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With a survey field 400 times bigger than Kepler’s, TESS is anticipated to identify some 20,000 additional exoplanets during its 24-month assignment. Just over 60 years have passed since the formulation of the Drake Equation. And scientists are now moving from a theoretical understanding of alien planets towards a body of factual knowledge.

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TESS’s cameras are able to gather data on a range of habitable planets, such as their orbit and size. Whereas large exoplanets have been the focus of study for several former surveys, TESS will survey relatively small planets orbiting the closest and most radiant stars to Earth. And those objects deemed significant will be studied further by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

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Currently in development by NASA, the JWST is essentially a next-generation Hubble Space Telescope. Its clarity is far in advance of the Hubble, however, and once launched it will be able to conduct a variety of cosmological and astronomical studies. The telescope is so-called in dedication to James E. Webb, who headed NASA between 1961 and 1968.

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The JWST will be used to observe events which took place many eons ago in the farthest reaches of the universe. Such events include the development of early galaxies and the creation of planets and stars. The JWST will chart areas of the cosmos which are beyond the reach of pre-existing technology.

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Meanwhile, the Kepler Space Telescope can assume its place in the NASA hall of fame. It is a cosmic pioneer which, despite its technical issues, provided nearly a decade of groundbreaking data. The search for alien planets is an old and necessary pursuit. And its purpose, in part, is to resolve the prospect once posited by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

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“Two possibilities exist,” said Clarke, in a quote cited by physicist Michio Kaku in his 1999 book Vision: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century. “Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

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If we are not alone in the universe, and if advanced alien civilizations do in fact exist, contacting them could be the best or worst thing humanity has ever done. On the one hand, we might be the recipient of new technologies and knowledge that could radically improve life on Earth. On the other, we might be enslaved or obliterated. For now, however, we appear to be trapped in glorious cosmic isolation.

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