The Kepler spacecraft known as the planet-hunter narrowly avoided disaster as an unknown problem left it helplessly floating 75 million miles from Earth.
NASA announced that Kepler had gone into a fail-safe Emergency Mode (EM) at the end of last week. The problem with the space telescope was unknown, leaving engineers scrambling to find the problem over the weekend.
“During a scheduled contact on Thursday, April 7, mission operations engineers discovered that the Kepler spacecraft was in Emergency Mode (EM),” NASA said in a statement. “EM is the lowest operational mode and is fuel intensive. Recovering from EM is the team’s priority at this time.”
While the cause EM has still not been determined, NASA did announce that Kepler has recovered. Sunday morning the spacecraft was restored to a stable state and able to return to a low fuel-burn mode. This coming week, scientists will try to uncover what problem caused the EM.
“The anomalous EM event is the first that the Kepler spacecraft has encountered during its seven years in space,” NASA said in its latest statement, adding that mission operations “remain vigilant”.
The problem was first detected in last week when scientists tried to point the telescope toward the middle of the Milky Way. Because of the seriousness of this situation, NASA allowed the Kepler team priority access to the Deep Space Network which is an Earth-based communication network that is used to communicate with spacecraft around the Solar System. Even with this, it took 13 minutes for a single back and forth because of Kepler’s distance from the Earth.
Launched in 2009 Kepler’s purpose is the find planets past the Solar System by using the transit method. The transit method observes a dip in distant stars as planets pass in front of them. With this method, the telescope has found thousands of potential exoplanets. The next spacecraft to use this method is the Transiting Exoplanet survey Satellite (TESS) which is not set to launch until 2017.
Not the first mishap that Kepler has encountered. IN July of 2012, one of the four gyroscopic reaction wheels malfunctioned. These wheels are used to orientate the spacecraft. The engineers were able to use pressure from solar wind to act as a fourth wheel.