NASA engineers have declared a mission emergency for the agency’s planet-hunting spacecraft Kepler, which has somehow switched into emergency mode. NASA just found out about the anomaly a day and a half ago, right before the agency tried to maneuver the spacecraft to point at the center of the Milky Way for a new observation campaign.
Now that a mission emergency has been declared, the Kepler team has priority access to NASA’s deep space telecommunications system in order to try to get the spacecraft back to normal operations.
Emergency mode is the lowest operational mode the spacecraft has. It also requires a lot more fuel than usual, which is why the Kepler mission team is working hard to get the spacecraft back to normal. But communication with Kepler isn’t easy. The spacecraft is currently 75 million miles away from Earth right now, according to NASA, so any communications signal traveling at the speed of light will take up to 13 minutes to travel to and from the spacecraft. NASA said it will provide updates about its efforts when they are available.
This isn’t the first time that Kepler has suffered some kind of malfunction. Kepler originally launched in 2009, with the goal of looking for planets outside of our Solar System. The spacecraft accomplished its main goal by 2012, after finding nearly 5,000 exoplanets. But in July of that year, Kepler experienced a failure in one of its four gyroscopic reaction wheels, which help aim the spacecraft. A second wheel was lost in May 2013, putting an end to its primary mission. But in 2014, NASA was able to extend Kepler’s life into what is called the K2 mission, which involves using pressure from the Sun to help orient the spacecraft.