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NASA Space

NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope Is Running Out of Fuel (mashable.com) 84

Charlie Sobeck, the system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, said in a NASA statement that Kepler is running low on gas. According to Sobekc, it only has "several months" before it reaches the end of the its life. Mashable reports: NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy for nearly a decade. It has spotted over 2,500 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars, and over 2,500 more possible worlds are waiting to be confirmed. Thirty of these confirmed planets live inside their host stars' habitable zones, places where liquid water could exist like it does on Earth. NASA placed the Kepler telescope 94 million miles away from Earth, in an orbit around the sun. This way, Earth's gravity and reflected light don't interfere with Kepler's precise measurements of distant planets. Out there, in the void, it's extremely unlikely that Kepler will become a threatening piece of space junk that could pose collision hazards to other satellites. Although Kepler will soon be spent and left to its long, lonely orbit in space, the spacecraft will soon be replaced by another exoplanet-hunting space telescope, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is set to launch into space on April 16.
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NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope Is Running Out of Fuel

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  • Design the next version with the ability to accept fuel while up in space?
    Fund up on some type of robotic refueling mission? Some way of getting rocket propellant transferred in space. With a robot. In space.
    • Re:Replace it (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 16, 2018 @04:29AM (#56268273)

      NASA has a page with frequently asked questions about Kepler's fuel status [nasa.gov]. From that page:

      Why wasn’t Kepler designed to be refueled?
      NASA decided to put Kepler in an orbit around the Sun that is well beyond the influence of the Earth and Moon to simplify operations and ensure an extremely quiet, stable environment for scientific observations. Well beyond our reach, Kepler compensated by flying considerably more fuel than was necessary to meet the mission objectives.

      To summarize, the location of the spacecraft makes a refueling mission impractical and expensive.

      • Understood, but what's not on that page is: "Would it cost more to refuel Kepler than to build a new telescope?"

        It's likely a new one would be an upgrade too, so then there's a cost/benefit to the upgrade to consider, but could (say) the ESA 'take ownership' of Kepler by refuelling it? It would mean the ESA would have a space telescope (and a pretty good one, at that), but "only" for the cost of the refuelling mission.

        This is probably all a moot point because I doubt Kepler has a little door on the side mar

      • by Anonymous Coward

        WRONG!

        It is because the reaction wheels broke thus causing it to use a lot more fuel to position itself.

      • To summarize, the location of the spacecraft makes a refueling mission impractical and expensive.

        If only there was a large reusable rocket that could that could reach it inexpensively. [wikipedia.org]

    • Or send Jebediah Kerman. He does this all the time when my space missions get stranded somewhere.

    • Unfortunately real life doesn't always match with science fiction.
      While we can probably do this, technically economically it is just more expensive to fill the "gas tank" with robots on an aging equipment. Then it is to build an other one and launch it into space.
      Science fiction like making traveling into orbit or the moon or a planet in our solar system seems like a Sunday drive, or at taking an airplane across the ocean. However the amount of energy involved (leaving earths influence) is massive, danger

    • Design the next version with the ability to accept fuel while up in space?

      Fund up on some type of robotic refueling mission?
      Some way of getting rocket propellant transferred in space. With a robot. In space.

      Hey, I've got an idea: It's in orbit around the SUN, FFS!

      How about, um, SOLAR POWER?!?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Hey, I've got an idea: It's in orbit around the SUN, FFS!

        How about, um, SOLAR POWER?!?

        It's got lots of solar power ... it uses it to run the instrumentation.

        But the fuel is for the thrusters to maintain its orbit and keep it aimed. At present, there is no technology to turn solar power into thrust in a spacecraft.

        Jesus fuck but there's some clueless fucking people on Slashdot these days.

        • by slew ( 2918 )

          Hey, I've got an idea: It's in orbit around the SUN, FFS!

          How about, um, SOLAR POWER?!?

          It's got lots of solar power ... it uses it to run the instrumentation.

          But the fuel is for the thrusters to maintain its orbit and keep it aimed. At present, there is no technology to turn solar power into thrust in a spacecraft.

          Jesus fuck but there's some clueless fucking people on Slashdot these days.

          Depends on if you believe in the plausibility of EM drive technology or not ;^)
          Maybe some day (although certainly not today)...

      • The fuel is for PROPULSION, genius.

        Here's an idea, next time you think you've come up with a (beyond obvious) solution that NASA hasn't thought of, figure out what YOU are missing instead.

        • The fuel is for PROPULSION, genius.

          Here's an idea, next time you think you've come up with a (beyond obvious) solution that NASA hasn't thought of, figure out what YOU are missing instead.

          True enough.

          I realized my error about 3 seconds after I posed it... Duh!

    • There's really no sense in designing a refuelable planet-hunting space telescope, because by the end of the primary mission the technology has moved on to better readings on smaller planets.

    • I thought they used nuclear power for these things? If they don't they should.
    • Design the next version with the ability to accept fuel while up in space? Fund up on some type of robotic refueling mission? Some way of getting rocket propellant transferred in space. With a robot. In space.

      Probably a ways yet to come, if it ever does. It runs into the same issues as why you can't change the batteries in some phones or for that matter, can't get a modular phone to switch out the modules for the services you need. Currently, not only does building in the ability to be refueled require expensive space and weight, but there is no standard, so building a refueling satellite and sending it up would cost as much as building a newer, better satellite to replace the one that could be refueled. Then yo

  • My car runs out of fuel in 10 km, I should buy another one.

    • Re:Car analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Friday March 16, 2018 @04:01AM (#56268229) Journal
      If you need to build, use and scrap a truck just to fuel up that car, springing for a newer better model instead might be indeed the better course of action.
    • If your car is worth $5K, you're somewhere in the US and it runs out of gas somewhere in the Gobi desert then yes, you probably should just buy another one.
    • by painandgreed ( 692585 ) on Friday March 16, 2018 @11:52AM (#56269857)

      My car runs out of fuel in 10 km, I should buy another one.

      Better car analogy: Your 10 year old electric car with 300k miles on it, torn seats, and a shot suspension, has a shot battery that won't hold a charge anymore. Do you spend $50k on getting the battery replaced, or spend $40k on a brand new electric car with newer tech?

      • by stooo ( 2202012 )

        >> Better car analogy: Your 10 year old electric car with 300k miles on it, torn seats, and a shot suspension, has a shot battery that won't hold a charge anymore.
        How do you treat your car ?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Dang I wish my 1966 beetle got anything like that

    • Clean, beautiful COAL! It's the FUTURE! THX113...9!

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      Dang I wish my 1966 beetle got anything like that

      Well, your if you launched your 1966 beetle aboard a Delta II rocket, it might...
      Heck, I suspect that Elon's Tesla roadster will eventually beat that...

      • by clovis ( 4684 )

        This guy who says "I'm just this guy" is doing the work for us: http://www.whereisroadster.com... [whereisroadster.com]

        As of 16 March 2018 at 7:32 EDT, the roadster has gone this far relative to the sun.
        "The car exceeded its 36,000 mile warranty 1,895.6 times while driving around the Sun, (68,240,857 miles, 109,823,048 km, 0.73 AU) moving at a speed of 70,832 mi/h (113,993 km/h, 31.66 km/s). The orbital period is about 557 days."

  • by vix86 ( 592763 ) on Friday March 16, 2018 @04:45AM (#56268299)

    With our launch systems likely to continue to get cheaper and cheaper per kilo, maybe we should start working on a system for refueling and maintenancing some of our current sats in operation. We won't be able to get something in place quick enough for Kepler I imagine, but someone really needs to start thinking about how to address this. Sure we can put up more advanced and brand spanking new sats but the process of fixing something would probably be cheaper in the long run compared to building something new which takes funding, planning, and building; instead, you could launch the equivalent of a space tow-truck to go out and fix it. Send up parts, fuel, and appropriate boost assist to get the "tow-truck" out there and patch it up and then boost back to the "truck garage."

    • With our launch systems likely to continue to get cheaper and cheaper per kilo, maybe we should start working on a system for refueling and maintenancing some of our current sats in operation.

      This would be a good idea if we were sending up the same types of satellites each time. However, our instrumentation has become significantly more advanced with each new mission. It's like trying to repair a PC with a Pentium II after getting a PC with an AMD EPYC which has over 1000x the computing power. It's not worth going through the effort of fixing these things.

      • There has to be a better way to decommission and retire these spacecraft. Letting them hang in orbit until they burn up in atmo seems like a waste. Not only in gross terms of material but in the ability to celebrate their discoveries. Why are we trying to find a way to bring them back to earth so we can study what space did to them (and thus make the next one better) but so that we can put them somewhere the public can have a better understanding of what we learned?

        • by nasch ( 598556 )

          I'm thinking adding heat shields for reentry would make it much bigger and heavier, and therefore a great deal more expensive to launch.

        • by Strider- ( 39683 )

          Kepler is in solar orbit at the L2 lagrange point. There is no way it would ever be practical to bring back to earth. Instead, it will just drift out into solar orbit, and forever wander the solar system. To quote Douglas Adams, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."

          In practical terms, moving an object in space, or putting it into orbit, takes prope

        • find a way to bring them back to earth so we can study what space did to them (and thus make the next one better)

          We actually have already had missions that were to specifically test materials in space. Further study is executed on the ISS. Leave the science to the scientists.

          so that we can put them somewhere the public can have a better understanding of what we learned?

          We always build more than just one. We have plenty of duplicates to put on display.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Couldn't we just send up the space shuttle to repair/refuel . . . Oops!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Why are people so fucking stupid with this.? Kepler is almost 100 million miles away. Idiots here talking about refueling, the fucking space shuttle only goes 400 miles, humans really only go 400 miles, outside of a whole bunch of moon missions that supposedly went off w/o a hitch, but now it's too hard. It's too hard. Too expensive. The moon is 250,000 miles away. Kepler is 95,000,000 miles away. Can you spot the problem?

        • The difference between 250,000 miles up and 95,000,000 miles actually isn't much at all. In fact you'll need considerably less fuel to reach Kepler at 95M than to land on the moon.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Send up parts, fuel, and appropriate boost assist to get the "tow-truck" out there and patch it up and then boost back to the "truck garage."

      Unfortunately any real change of orbit is ridiculously expensive. It may be feasible to have a GEO repair satellite fix other GEO satellites by slightly speeding up or slowing down in the same circular plane, but if you're oribiting at different altitude or inclination it'll almost always be cheaper to send a resupply/repair mission directly to the destination orbit. If operating on the satellite is even feasible, I mean unless you actually have repair hatches and refill connectors you'd have to cut it open

      • Ion drives (or possibly electrodynamic tethers) kind of solve the problem of changing orbits cheaply, if you're not in a hurry.

    • That's exactly what NASA [nasa.gov] and at least one commercial space company [spacenews.com] are doing at the moment.

    • Re:Refueling system? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Friday March 16, 2018 @12:21PM (#56270035)

      Kepler is pretty much worn out at this point. Aside from its lack of fuel, it's reaction wheels are long dead (this is why it's running out of fuel). The reaction wheels are what allowed it to keep itself oriented precisely. Also, it's electronics are pretty much worn out from being bombarded by cosmic radiation, its solar panels are going to be wearing out. Lastly, while it's been an incredibly valuable instrument, it's instruments have done pretty much all they can at this point.

      In short, it's time to retire her and replace it with the next generation.

    • Space Truckin'!

    • Sure we can put up more advanced and brand spanking new sats but the process of fixing something would probably be cheaper in the long run compared to building something new which takes funding, planning, and building

      0.o And you think the replacement parts won't need funding, planning, and building - and the replacement process itself won't need funding and planning? And that's setting aside the procurement and operational costs of the "space tow truck".

      Launch costs are only a small piece of the puzzle.

  • Not unexpected. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Friday March 16, 2018 @05:31AM (#56268395)

    Yes, it's running out of fuel but it's also been operating for about a decade. "In 2013, Kepler’s primary mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke" which means this won't really be a big loss since it's been minimally functional for good while. The good news is that the James Webb Space Telescope is on track to be operational in about 18 months. [nasa.gov]

  • If only there was a technology to use light from the sun to generate power....  Maybe some sort of panel...solar panel....

    Maybe we can invent something like that for it's replacement.  Nah,that's just science fiction.
  • When the guy says, "uh oh, honey, looks like we're about to run out of gas," out in the middle of nowhere, (like in Earth orbit,) it is often really a pretense for some foolin' around.

    I think ol' Kep is about to try to put 'the moves' on Hubble! Hehehe

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