NASA's Kepler Space Telescope can be retired, but the discoveries continue to rack up this historic planet-hunting mission. Kepler called in the new year with several new planet discoveries, including a previously overlooked planet of an exceptional size, as well as a super earth and a Saturn-sized world that orbits a sun-like star.
Meanwhile, the Kepler mission has released its final record of the spacecraft's full field of view before the release of fuel permanently ended its work. NASA retired the spacecraft on October 30, 201
The "last light" image taken on September 25 represents the final page of the last chapter of Kepler's remarkable data collection journey. It records the moment of intense tension nine and a half years earlier when the spacecraft first opened its eye to the sky and captured its "first light" image. Kepler continued to discover more than 2,600 worlds beyond our solar system and statistically proven that our galaxy has even more planets than stars.
The black holes in the middle and on top of the image are the result of previous random part errors in the camera. Due to the modular design, the losses do not affect the rest of the instrument.
For this final field of view, Kepler's last observation campaign in his extended mission, the telescope was spiked toward the constellation Aquarius. It got a glimpse of the famous TRAPPIST-1 system with its seven clipped planets, at least three of them believed to be temperate worlds. Another goal was the GJ 9827 system, a nearby light star hosting a planet considered an excellent opportunity for follow-up observations with other telescopes to study an atmosphere in a distant world.
Fortunately, Kepler's point of view also slightly overlapped with NASA's new planetary hunters, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS which allows astronomers to compare and improve their understanding of the data received from the two spacecraft. Although Kepler's transmitters are turned off and it no longer gathers science, its data will be extracted for many years to come.
Here are videos of some of Kepler's last goals, as these stars light and dimmer. In addition to the static snapshots, Kepler routinely took his full field of view, and the telescope's camera also detected selected targets at 30 minute intervals. These continued for several hours after the "last light" image before data collection ceased. The target data is obtained to measure the change in the brightness of the stars, which is crucial to discovering planets as they pass through the stars' faces and to understand other aspects of the stellar behavior. The scrolling of the stars in the videos is due to falling thruster performance caused by near-fuel fatigue.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages Kepler and K2 missions to NASA's Director of Scientific Tasks. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, accomplished Kepler's mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operated the flight system with support from the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.