NASA image of Kepler

Kepler is dead. Now what?

Contributed by
Nov 1, 2018, 10:20 PM EDT

Kepler may no longer be for this world (or any other world), but the space telescope's discoveries will extend further beyond the end of its mission.

NASA’s OG planet hunter had spent nine years in deep space and discovered 2,600 previously unknown planets that may or may not be breeding alien life (and indicated the existence of billions more). Meaning it found more planets lurking out there than even stars. The space agency has finally decided to decommission Kepler, which has run out of fuel and closed its telescopic eyes forever, while it is still orbiting safely away from Earth.

"As NASA's first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond," said NASA Science Mission Directorate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.

Unlike Cassini, whose kamikaze plunge into Saturn was its final, fiery farewell to the universe, Kepler will get a decommissioning command beamed to it from the NASA team on Earth. It will then float lifelessly through space in a dark, cold afterlife.

What Kepler found during its lifetime could be a guide not only in the continuing search for exoplanets, but the search for anything alive beyond Earth. Kepler most recently revealed that 20 to 50 percent of the stars the naked eye can see after dark could be orbited by small, rocky planets not unlike our own. 

NASA image of star cluster discovered by Kepler

A spectacular cluster of stars discovered by Kepler in the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

These planets are within the habitable zone of their stars and may have liquid water. Whether or not that means strange organisms have spawned there, the space telescope has left behind a legacy.

"Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm,” Zurbuchen said. “Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.” 

When Kepler was still being brainstormed by NASA 35 years ago, there was no proof of any planets beyond our solar system. The knowledge that there are planets scattered everywhere opens nearly endless possibilities, and keeps pushing expectations for Kepler’s successor TESS and other upcoming missions. The new planet seeker is sending back data on planets orbiting around 200,000 of the brightest stars nearest to Earth, which NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will take a closer look at once it actually gets off the ground.

"Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that's full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy," said retired NAA researcher William Borucki.

What we might find could be wilder than anything out of science fiction.

(via NASA)