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After 9 Years In Orbit, Kepler Telescope Leaves A Legacy Of Discovery

Nov 4, 2018
Originally published on November 5, 2018 7:04 am

When looking up at the stars, it's hard not to wonder what else — or even who else — could be out there. The resilience of franchises like Star Trek in pop culture prove we've always believed in the possibility of life beyond our own solar system. But it wasn't until about a decade ago that we were able to locate and identify those distant planets of our dreams.

Since March 2009, NASA has discovered more than 2,600 planets, including potentially habitable ones, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope. Last week, after nearly a decade of hunting for new planets, the Kepler finally ran out of fuel. NASA decided to officially retire Kepler within its current orbit, away from Earth, on Oct. 30, 2018.

"There's a big difference between knowing and believing," says Charlie Sobeck, NASA's former manager of the Kepler mission. "I think that's what Kepler's legacy is going to be: We finally know that planets are everywhere out there and now, we're going to go and find out more about them."

Sobeck has worked on the Kepler mission since 2000, and though Kepler's planet-hunting has now come to an end, he sees the mission as a success and isn't sad to see the spacecraft go. "This is not an accident like getting struck by a meteorite or having an engine fail or something. We ran out of gas. We knew we were going to be running out of gas," he says.

Now that Kepler's officially retired, NASA plans to continue the hunt for new planets, only this time, a little closer to home. While Kepler's mission was to search for planets about 3,000 light-years away, NASA launched a new spacecraft called Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short, in April of this year to search every star within 100 light-years of Earth.

Sobeck sees Kepler as "the opening salvo" in the ongoing search to answer the question, "Are we alone?"

"Without this mission, we wouldn't have done tests, we wouldn't have been looking for planetary atmospheres," he says. "So Kepler really opened the door to a new investigation path."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is Lulu's log, stardate November 4, 2018, where we consider matters of space, the stars and the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When looking up at the stars, it's hard not to wonder what else or even who else could be out there. It wasn't until about a decade ago that we were able to locate and identify the distant planets of our dreams. Since 2009, NASA has discovered more than 2,600 planets thanks to the Kepler space telescope. Last week, after nearly a decade of hunting for new planets, the Kepler finally ran out of fuel. Joining us today to talk about the legacy of the Kepler Mission is NASA's Charlie Sobeck, a former manager of the mission. Welcome to the program.

CHARLIE SOBECK: Thank you very much. Pleased to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think will be remembered as Kepler's greatest discoveries?

SOBECK: I think the biggest thing that's going to be remembered from Kepler is not any specific planet. But the legacy's really going to be that planets are out there everywhere. I mean, the "Star Trek" franchise has been going on for 50 years now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

SOBECK: I had no problems believing starships could go from one place to another, and planets were going to be everywhere. Kepler really affected me when we found them all. There's a big difference between knowing and believing. And I think that's what Kepler's legacy is going to be. We finally know that planets are everywhere out there. And now we're going to go and find out more about them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you sad?

SOBECK: Not really - I mean, we saw the end coming. We knew it was going to happen. We - this is not an accident like getting struck by a meteorite or having an engine fail or something. We ran out of gas. We knew we were going to be running out of gas. So it's kind of sad that it's all over, but by no means am I unhappy. This was a tremendous mission.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Now that Kepler's done, NASA plans to continue the hunt for new planets with TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which is a bit of a mouthful. And that was launched earlier this year. How will it continue the work of Kepler?

SOBECK: So the way I look at it is Kepler was launched to answer the question, are there other planets out there? And it came back with a resounding yes. But we were looking, you know, a thousand, 3,000 light years away. TESS is going to now say, now that we know that planets are everywhere, we're going to go ahead and make the investment. And we're going to look at all our near neighbors - basically, every star within a hundred light years of Earth - and look for planets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since this is a kind of obit for Kepler, how do you think it should be remembered?

SOBECK: I think it should be remembered as the opening salvo in this ongoing investigation. You know, it's a series of stepping stones to answer the question, are we alone? And without this mission, we wouldn't have done TESS. We wouldn't have been looking for planetary atmospheres. So Kepler really opened the door to a new investigation path.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NASA's Charlie Sobeck, former manager of the Kepler space telescope mission. Thank you so much for joining me.

SOBECK: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.