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New Plan for a Disabled Kepler

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Excerpt: ...Kepler’s managers say they have a plan that could keep it hunting for these exoplanets for three or four more years. “K2: The story begins,” Steve Howell, Kepler’s deputy project scientist, told a recent gathering of astronomers here at NASA’s Ames Research Center, ...K2 would no longer train Kepler on only one set of stars. Instead, it would skip around the sky, monitoring the stars in one spot continuously for up to 80 days. could detect planets with habitable orbits around the smaller, dimmer stars known as red dwarfs. For such stars, the temperate orbital regions, or Goldilocks zones — where the surface temperatures on a planet are mild enough for liquid water — are closer and thus have shorter orbital periods.

...The loss of a second reaction wheel — Kepler was launched with four — left the spacecraft prone to rolling about its telescope’s line of sight, especially when its solar panels, which wrap halfway around the telescope like a cape, are unevenly illuminated by sunlight. ...the telescope and detector remained unscathed, making it a valuable astronomical resource already in space. ...sunlight can be used to stabilize Kepler. The key is to keep it pointed in directions that leave its solar panels evenly to fields of stars that lie along a circle known as the ecliptic — the path traversed by the sun through the zodiac... where Kepler could record the rise and fall of supernova explosions that have proved critical to understanding cosmic history stars and planets in a variety of environments.

For now, however, K2 is only a proposal, still being tested. ...The final decision on Kepler’s fate will come next spring. Regardless of the answer, the Kepler team will go on. The scientists have three more years of work to analyze the data that has already been obtained, including the whole last year of the spacecraft’s observations, which Mr. Borucki characterized in a news conference as “the most valuable data we have.”....

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