The Kepler spacecraft is currently in emergency mode after the space-based observatory developed problems, leaving NASA scrambling to revive it.
The issue was detected when NASA engineers contacted the vehicle, finding it in emergency mode. When the spacecraft is in this state, the observatory returns data to Earth at the slowest rate possible, severely hampering communications.
Mission engineers at NASA have declared Kepler to be in a state of spacecraft emergency. This provides controllers with priority access to communication networks capable of sending commands to the vehicle.
"Kepler completed its prime mission in 2012, detecting nearly 5,000 exoplanets, of which, more than 1,000 have been confirmed. In 2014 the Kepler spacecraft began a new mission called K2. In this extended mission, K2 continues the search for exoplanets while introducing new research opportunities to study young stars, supernovae, and many other astronomical objects," NASA officials wrote in a public release, updating news on the state of the craft.
The Kepler observatory is currently about 75 million miles from the Earth. At this distance, it takes radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, 13 minutes to travel between the spacecraft and our home world. The last regular contact with Kepler took place on April 4. At that time, controllers found the vehicle to be in excellent condition.
Before Kepler can be revived, controllers will need to find out what caused the shutdown. The answer to that question has yet to be determined.
This is not the first time that Kelpler has shut down unexpectedly. In January 2013, the vehicle was placed into safe mode after NASA engineers discovered a problem with the orientation mechanism of the orbiting observatory.
In May of that year, NASA officials announced they were shutting down the mission, following the failure of two of the four reaction wheels required to direct the view of the spacecraft. Later on, mission planners devised methods to work around the problem, allowing the Kepler mission to continue.
"[W]e have balanced the spacecraft against the solar pressure so well that we can see a change in it's pointing when transmitting data from its back-up antenna. Just think about that for a moment. This spacecraft, as big and heavy as an SUV, turns slightly just because we change the broadcasting antenna! This is like having your car begin to turn because of the blinking of your turn signal!" Charlie Sobeck, mission manager for Kepler, said.
The spacecraft was launched from Earth in 2009 on a quest to discover planets outside the solar system. Using this observatory orbiting around the sun, astronomers were able to determine that planets are quite common throughout the galaxy. The presence of dozens of super-Earths, larger versions of our own world, have been detected by researchers utilizing the now-silent spacecraft.
Kepler was being directed to look toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy when engineers noted the craft was in emergency mode. Officials with the American national space agency are releasing updates on Kepler's condition as they learn more about the unexpected situation.
The Kepler spacecraft has been down before, but never for the count. Even if mission engineers are unable to revive the spacecraft this time around, this solar-orbiting planet-hunter will still be considered a major success.