What happens to Kepler?

Serious problems with the satellite tracking system dedicated to the hunt for extrasolar planets seem to put an end to the mission. On the type of fault and the relevant scientific contribution provided by Kepler in recent years we have heard Enrico Flamini (ASI) and respectively, Raffaele Gratton (INAF). Those gyroscopes! It may have been the ones to mark the definitive end of NASA’s Kepler mission.kepler1


Already last year, one of the four devices on board the satellite had gone faulty and had been replaced by the spare. And here comes in a few days a new problem in one of the three remaining gyroscopes that could give him the coup de grace. These apparatuses are in fact vital to the proper functioning of the activities of the satellite as to ensure its perfect pointing and stability: “a telescope that without these devices must have a very high precision pointing and pointing to repeat the same even after a long time with the same high precision, simply is no longer able to do its job,” says Enrico Flamini, scientific coordinator of the Italian Space Agency. “It is clear that when we speak of a failure, we must always think in terms of probabilities. It does everything possible in designing and manufacturing space missions to minimize the likelihood of damage, especially critical as that experienced by Kepler, but unfortunately it is never possible to reset this chance. ”

What are, therefore, the immediate repercussions on the scientific mission?

“This issue is certain to provoke a loss of accuracy in the photometric accuracy, i.e. the measurement of the radiation from the stars that are monitored to search for planets orbiting around them,” explains Raffaele Gratton, INAF astronomer and expert on extrasolar planets.

Yet Kepler , in nearly four years of working life recently passed (launching day: 7 Mars 2009) – just that provided by the initial project – has given us a new vision of that what is the world outside of our solar system , even remotely imaginable before its entry into operation .

The Kepler spacecraft finds planets beyond our solar system by detecting changes in star brightness when a planet passes in front of a star. kepler2


 “Kepler was a huge success. It marked a revolution in our understanding of planetary systems and has fully realized the expectations that were extremely ambitious. Beyond the number of planets discovered, more than what had been anticipated; there are some features that have these planets that determine the success of the mission. Meanwhile, a huge statistic on the planets has been given, particularly those with short periods. This is fundamental to our understanding of how planetary systems formed and continuously evolve. Many of the planets found are small and some of these are located in the habitable zone. This result is very important to understand what is the probability that there are planets with these characteristics and which could possibly be the necessary conditions to host life forms”, says Gratton. “But we must remember that Kepler has also made ​​a huge contribution on the understanding of the internal structure of stars, information coming from the study of their pulse, what we call asteroseismology.”

Yet, despite these huge success, not the whole amount of data sent from the mission so far has been exploited by the international scientific community: “We have extremely accurate measurements of the variation of brightness for about 100,000 stars and for each of these we have about a million of measurements, each of them with extreme precision. We are therefore talking about hundreds of billions of measurements and take out all the important information that lie behind this huge amount of data will be a job that will take another year “, said the astronomer.

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