Hobbled Kepler Needs New Mission Before 2014 Review

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WASHINGTON — Although insurmountable technical problems have now ended the Kepler Space Telescope’s primary mission to seek out faraway Earth-like planets, NASA is looking for a new mission that could keep the observatory, and the team at the Ames Research Center that operates it, busy.

It will be a tough road for Kepler, a Discovery-class project that just last year had its primary mission extended to 2016. Now, with two of its four reaction wheels evidently damaged beyond repair, NASA must scramble to put together a new mission that will pass muster with a senior review board slated to convene in February. The board, composed of senior scientists, judges which of NASA’s operating missions are worthy of more funding.

Kepler had a $19.5 million budget in 2012, which the White House planned to trim to about $18 million by 2016, according to a budget request released in April.

The telescope was launched to its present Earth-like solar orbit in 2009 by a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket. Since then, Kepler has used its sole instrument, a photometer constructed by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., to scan for Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars. The telescope detects planets by watching for the telltale flicker that occurs when an orbiting body crosses in front of its local star.

These observations require precise positioning, something Kepler can no longer do with only two working reaction wheels. One wheel failed in July 2012; another malfunctioned in May. NASA struggled to repair at least one of the wheels, but announced Aug. 13 that it was calling off the effort.

However, even before it announced the end of Kepler’s primary mission, the agency had been planning for the worst. On Aug. 2, NASA called for white papers detailing the sort of science Kepler could accomplish with just two of its reaction wheels.

“If an appropriate science case(s) and cost envelope is found, the repurposed mission will continue to be operated out of NASA Ames Research Center and make use of the nominal mission project office personnel and expertise already in place,” the Moffett Field, Calif., based center wrote in the Aug. 2 call for white papers.

No new funding would be available for a follow-on mission.

Papers are due to the Kepler Project Office at Ames by Sept. 3. The office will submit a final report to NASA headquarters on Nov. 1, meaning the center’s recommendations should be ready in time for the second Kepler Science Conference, to be held at Ames Nov. 4-8.