The Beginning, End, and Future of the Kepler Mission

Four years ago, the Monday before last, I was standing on a small spit of land at Kennedy Space Flight Center. It was dark, I was cold (having foolishly assumed that Florida in May would be warm), but above all, I was nervous.

Kepler was about to launch.

A few weeks before, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory had gone into the drink, done in by a failed fairing on the same kind of launch vehicle that now held Kepler. We’d been told it would be fine, and we’d been cleared for launch, but I was still nervous. I wasn’t the only one– I remember Jonathan Fortney literally hopping up and down next to me in anticipation in those last few moments before the countdown. I had only joined the Kepler team a few months before, after finishing grad school and going to work with Gibor Basri at Berkeley. I was new enough that I’d missed the order for an official Kepler launch day hat, so Kepler’s wonderful Deputy PI Dave Koch gave me one of his.

A few minutes before the Kepler launch, May 6th, 2009.

A few minutes before the Kepler launch, May 6th, 2009.

My nervousness wasn’t helped by the fact that the day before, a number of us had gone on a tour of Kennedy Space Flight Center that featured a reel full of terrifying footage of early failed launches (I guess before you see the Saturn V control room, they want to impress the risks of exploring space upon you). Soren Meibom and I exchanged nauseated looks at we watched grainy footage of one rocket after the other exploding on the screens of the Saturn V anteroom, grumbling and reassuring one another that it would probably be fine.

The night of the Kepler launch, I stood out in the spectator area feeling like I could almost see the gears of my life turning. Six years before then, in 2002, I had been out in similar chill and dark at Kennedy, shivering in a previous emergency-purchase hoodie* to watch the launch of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. In that case, the launch was the culmination of a project for me– close to the last thing I would do before graduating from college and heading off to grad school. It was later that summer that I would meet Kepler’s PI Bill Borucki for the first time, at a meeting of the SPIE. I’d never been to a professional conference before, and so I stood anxiously next to my poster** half-hoping and half-terrified that someone would come talk to me. The person who came by to talk to me about my poster was Bill. Though I didn’t know who he was at the time, and certainly had no idea I’d ever be working with him, I clearly recall our interaction. I was left with an impression of bulldog tenacity, which I only later came to appreciate was the driving force behind the successful launch of Kepler.

It would be an understatement to say that a great deal of planning went into Kepler, in the sense that space missions are designed to finely-tuned specifics upon which their teams live and breathe. But I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Kepler’s data took everyone’s breath away, even those who’d been living the mission details for years. When the first ten days of commissioning data came down, a small group of us sat in a conference room at NASA Ames to see the early returns. Someone put up a lightcurve from Kepler, an eclipsing binary***. Then came the question:

“I’m sorry– I missed it, what is that a model of?”

A pause.

“That’s the data.”

Though you might think that, after four years, we’d have become inured to the Kepler data and the constant onslaught of associated discoveries (“yeesh, another Earth-size planet in the habitable zone? Snoozers!”) the truth is, it really doesn’t get old. The incredible success of the mission is not just because of how much these data have told us, but because of how much more they have left to tell.

It remains to be seen whether Kepler will stage an incredible comeback– and though we’d all like to see that happen, the chances are very, very slim. Kepler resides in so-called “Earth-trailing” orbit, meaning that it orbits the Sun, tagging along after Earth while falling further and further behind. It’s far out of range for repair. If the reaction wheel revives, Kepler’s mission of searching for small exoplanets may continue– but without that wheel (and therefore the ability to point with precision), it’s unlikely to be possible. Kepler may go on to another life as a telescope with a different goal, but it won’t be the same.

However, I take heart in Kepler’s breath-taking data, in knowing that the richness of information that’s there has far more to teach us that what we’ve managed to learn thus far. I’m sad that Kepler’s main mission has likely ended, and I’m sad that there are things Kepler will not now be able to do– but as with so many things in science, every question that remains unanswered now is an opportunity for the future.

*As it happens, Florida is also cold in March.

** “Poster” = printed-out PowerPoint slides pinned to a piece of fabric. Yeah.

***two stars that orbit one another, where each star periodically passes in front of the other and blocks some of its light

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2 Responses to The Beginning, End, and Future of the Kepler Mission

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  2. facebook says:

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