Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It’s Fixed, Kind of

I’m always leery of doing a follow-up to a science-type blog. I still have the original article that inspired the first blog, but trying to find ‘up-dates’ can be tricky. Still, some subjects are worth the effort. Let’s hope I can find actual facts on this one, because otherwise, it’s mostly rumors.
Fact: The Kepler Space Telescope discovered hundreds of planets around other stars, and it did it by staring at just one tiny section of space. Fact?: Then, boom, it developed some kind of problem that kept it from staying aligned to stare at that one speck of space. At the time, I wasn’t sure what the problem was. A mis-firing attitude rocket? A stabilizing fly-wheel that went wonky? Not knowing the design, I had no idea, so I wasn’t even sure this wasn’t a rumor, except that the rate of newly discovered exo-planets suddenly fell to near-zero.1
Fact: No, NASA couldn’t send a team to repair it, like they did with the Hubble Telescope. Hubble is in orbit around Earth. Kepler is in orbit around the sun, at some distance from Earth. Just planning such an expedition would take years, with more years needed to develop a ship capable of such a thing. Rumor: The Kepler Telescope was dead.
Rumor: Late last summer, I heard from a convention panelist that Kepler was not actually dead, just crippled and unable to perform the same task it was designed to do. It still was a telescope2, and NASA was now developing ways to get some use out of it.3
Rumor?: Kepler is back! And to celebrate, it discovered a super-Earth to whet our imaginations.
Okay, now for updates.
1. Kepler had 2 of its 4 reaction wheels seize. These are flywheels for spacecraft, especially spacecraft that must stay focused on one thing, like a tiny patch of space.
2. Kepler’s second mission, since it couldn’t do the first, was to study whatever it could; black holes, exploding stars, whatever.
3. Somebody suggested they let the pressure of the sun’s light point the telescope. Solar wind streams past the machine anyway, why not use that wind to help stabilize it? It would always point away from the sun, and it wouldn’t be perfectly stable, but the remaining flywheels and alignment rockets could easily correct any drifting. It also would not be aligning with that original patch of space, but this gave it the chance to explore more patches of space.
Ergo, Kepler is back! Although not specifically looking only for exo-planets, it found one during a test run in February (2014, I believe), which is called HIP 116454b. HIP 11 (as I like to call it) is a super-Earth, having a diameter about 2.5 times that of Earth, and it (closely) circles a red dwarf located 180 light-years away. Its existence has been confirmed by the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.

I love a happy ending.

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