On October 30, 2018, NASA announced that the Kepler Spacecraft burned through the last of its fuel supply, drifting on a safe orbit away from Earth on its way into retirement. The space observatory concludes a glorious nine years of beauty and awe, passing the beacon of discovery to its technologically advanced successors, though they certainly stand on the shoulders of giants.
Launched on March 7, 2009 as NASA’s premier space observatory, Kepler surveyed our corner of the Milky Way Galaxy searching for Earth-sized planets residing in the habitable zone of their host star. Originally intended to last 3.5 years, its mission extended into 2012, then 2013, stricken with hurdles along the way including malfunctioning equipment, disabling data collection for a time. Kepler discovered over 3,700 diverse exoplanets in over 2,800 star systems. The pioneer exoplanet hunter, Kepler pushed the barriers of human knowledge, forever augmenting our curiosity.
It is estimated that astronomers will take decades to unravel discoveries found in the treasure trove of data that Kepler collected. A recent analysis suggests that 20 to 50 percent of visible stars likely possess small terrestrial planets similar to Earth within the habitable zone.
The Transitioning Exoplanet Survey Satelite (TESS), NASA’s next generation exoplanet hunter currently in orbit, continues the work of Kepler in preparation for the James Webb Space Telescope. These two marvels of technology will launch our civilization into a new era of Space Exploration as mankind stretches its reach deeper, connecting unknown worlds and building upon the Kepler’s discoveries. Rest easy, ye ol’ Spacecraft, the work you started lies in great (robot) hands.