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NASA preps long-distance rescue plan for crippled Kepler telescope

Space telescope has been spinning out of control and not working since May

July 8, 2013 04:40 PM ET

Computerworld - NASA scientists are working on a rescue plan for the Kepler Space Telescope and will try to kick start the planet hunter later this month.

In May, NASA announced that the telescope, which was launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets , had lost the use of one of the four wheels that control its orientation in space. Kepler, spinning uncontrollably in space, went into safe mode and has not been revived yet.

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This graphic depicts the Kepler Space Telescope and shows where the malfunctioning wheels are located. (Image: NASA)

This is the second wheel failure Kepler has suffered.

With NASA no longer able to manipulate the telescope's positioning, ground engineers have had a hard time communicating with the spacecraft since the communications link comes and goes as it spins.

When NASA initially reported the problem, it noted that the spinning was clearly tied to a hardware failure inside the reaction wheel - most likely a bearing problem. The agency also noted that with a second wheel compromised, it was unlikely engineers could repair the telescope enough to take highly accurate readings.

However, it's clear that NASA has not given up on Kepler.

While the telescope is safe in orbit, engineers are working on a long-distance repair plan and testing it on a spacecraft test bed at the Ball Aerospace facility in Boulder, Colo.. The team is scheduled to try the repair out on the actual spacecraft between later this month.

Kepler will remain in safe mode until and during the tests.

The space telescope is considered to be one of NASA's great success stories. After wrapping up its primary three-and-a-half-year mission and entering a second phase of research last November, NASA scientists had hoped Kepler would continue working for another four years.

Since it began work on May 12, 2009, the telescope has searched more than 100,000 stars for signs of Earth-like planets in the habitable zone, an area that may have water and could potentially support life. The telescope has so far confirmed more than 100 such planets.

Kepler's work has been getting a lot of attention over the last several months.

Just last week, a study released by a team of researchers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University showed that there may be 60 billion planets -- double the number cited in earlier studies -- in the Milky Way alone that could support life.

While Kepler has found only a few handfuls of those potentially habitable planets, it has been spotting them.

Just a few weeks ago, a group of astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory reported the discovery of a solar system with three super-Earths that could hold water and, thus, support life.

The three planets are part of a system of at least six planets that orbit a star known as Gliese 667C, which is 22 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Scorpius.

It was the first time that three planets have been found orbiting in a habitable zone in the same system.

In April, NASA reported that Kepler discovered two other planets 1,200 light years from Earth, that are perfectly sized and positioned to potentially hold life.

This article, NASA preps long-distance rescue plan for crippled Kepler telescope, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, on or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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