Kepler Observatory operators will try to heal failed reaction wheels

There’s still some hope for the orbiting Kepler exoplanet searcher:

Kepler Mission Manager Update: Preparing for Recovery

Operations in Point Rest State (PRS) have continued for the spacecraft. The spacecraft was placed in PRS on May 15, 2013, after the failure of reaction wheel 4. It has been 53 days since the spacecraft collected new science data.

As noted in the last update, the team has made adjustments to onboard fault parameters for the star trackers to lessen the possibility of entry into safe mode. We have also made additional adjustments to the Thruster-Control Safe Mode to improve its fuel efficiency. This provides yet more protection for spacecraft fuel reserves while the team continues to work on reaction wheel performance assessment and recovery plans.

The engineering team has devised initial tests for the recovery attempt and is checking them on the spacecraft test bed at the Ball Aerospace facility in Boulder, Colo. The team anticipates that exploratory commanding of Kepler’s reaction wheels will commence mid-to-late July. The Kepler spacecraft will remain in PRS until and during the tests.

Later this month, an update to the data processing pipeline software will be deployed. Called SOC 9.1, this enhancement has been underway for several months and is in the final stages of verification and validation. This software release provides additional refinements to better tease out small planet signatures from the four years of Kepler data. It will also decrease the frequency of false positives.

The team continues to disposition Kepler Objects of Interest (KOIs) found by searching the observational data from Quarters 1 to Quarter 12. With 63 more planet candidates added since the last report, the count now stands at 3,277.

While Kepler data analysis continues, we were pleased to note the discoveries recently announced by European Southern Observatory (ESO).  A team of astronomers has combined new observations of Gliese 667C with existing data from HARPS at ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope in Chile, revealing a system with at least six planets. A record-breaking three of these planets are super-Earths lying in the zone around the star where liquid water might exist, making them possible candidates for the presence of life. This is the first system found with a fully packed habitable zone.

Also this month, a research team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., used Kepler data to find two planets smaller than three times the size of Earth orbiting sun-like stars in a one billion year old star cluster named NGC 6811. The result demonstrates that small planets can form and persist in an open cluster, and casts the net wider in the search for planets the size and temperature of Earth. With this discovery, 134 planets have been confirmed using Kepler data.

And, finally we note the announcement from France’s space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), on the retirement of the Convection, Rotation, and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission. The CoRoT spacecraft was launched Dec. 26, 2006, and paved the way for Kepler in terms of space-based identification of transiting exoplanets and also the detection of acoustic oscillations in sun-like stars. We congratulate CNES on a great run with the CoRoT spacecraft!