Kepler Receives Two-Year Extension for K2 Mission

The conception illustration depicts how solar pressure can be used to balance NASA's Kepler spacecraft, keeping the space telescope stable enough to continue monitoring distant stars in search of transiting planets. Image Source: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

The conception illustration depicts how solar pressure can be used to balance NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, keeping the space telescope stable enough to continue monitoring distant stars in search of transiting planets. Image Source: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

May 16, 2014 – Based on a recommendation from NASA’s 2014 Senior Review of its operating missions, the planet hunting Kepler space telescope has received an extension to operate in a new two-wheel mode. The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae.

After the second wheel of Kepler’s guidance control system failed last year during the spacecraft’s extended mission, engineers devised a clever solution to manage the sun’s radiation pressure and limit its effect on the spacecraft pointing.

“Our LASP MODS team has worked hard to bring this new mission to fruition. Despite the significant issues with the reaction wheels, we knew that we could squeeze more out of the spacecraft and instrument. I’m very proud of our students and staff. Only through their hard work and dedication was this possible,” said Bill Possel, Director of Mission Operations and Data Systems at LASP.

K2 will observe target fields along the ecliptic plane, the orbital path of planets in our solar system, also known as the zodiac, for approximately 75-day campaigns. The first K2 science observation run is scheduled to begin May 30.

Since Kepler launched in March 2009, a team of 20 University of Colorado students and 16 LASP professionals have controlled the spacecraft from the LASP Mission Operations Center. Under the extended mission, LASP will continue to provide students with hands-on spacecraft mission operations experience.

The LASP operations team has been instrumental in conducting verification demonstrations of the novel K2 approach, which will use photon pressure from sunlight to maintain stability for long time-series observations.

The original Kepler mission conducted a survey of approximately 150,000 stars in the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-sized planets with the potential to support life. To date, the Kepler Science Team has confirmed 962 planets and has identified nearly 4,000 others as planet candidates, awaiting validation.

Kepler’s loss of a second spacecraft reaction wheel in May 2013 effectively ended data collection in the original Kepler field after 4 years of continuous monitoring. However, all other Kepler assets remain intact and can be used for the K2 mission. Both missions are founded on the proven value of long-baseline, high-cadence, high-precision photometry and exploit a large field of view to simultaneously monitor many targets.

To learn more about the K2 mission visit the Kepler Science Center website.