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Kepler tests new pointing method in hopes of continuing mission

During recent tests of its new pointing method, the Kepler spacecraft was able to detect WASP-28B, a previously known exoplanet.
During recent tests of its new pointing method, the Kepler spacecraft was able to detect WASP-28B, a previously known exoplanet.NASA

The team controlling NASA's Kepler spacecraft is currently testing a new method of pointing its telescope to compensate for a reaction wheel which became stuck last summer. In a mission update issued on Feb.14, Kepler mission manager Roger Hunter discussed preparations for Kepler's new mission, dubbed K2.

The Kepler team has been testing pointing Kepler's telescope using the spacecraft's two remaining reaction wheels and orienting the craft so that the pressure of the sun's light hits it evenly. If properly positioned, the spacecraft can be balanced against the pressure, making it stable enough to monitor distant stars in search of transiting planets. K2 can also be used to planets around bright and nearby stars.The K2 mission could also observe star-forming regions, stellar clusters of various ages, other galaxies and even gravitational microlensing events.

K2 observed the known planet-hosting star WASP-28 during one of the demonstration tests. Data was collected for three days and a transit of WASP-38b, a Jupiter-sized planet which orbits its star every three and a half days, was captured. This test demonstrated that K2 can still detect planets.

The K2 meeting was described in detail at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society where a preliminary set of observing fields were distributed for public comment and a request for potential targets was made. The team is currently reviewing the 126 target requests and scientific verification observations will begin in March. While the primary purpose of the first campaign is to calibrate the star tracker, scientific data will also be collected.

The Kepler team continues to sift through the four years of date that the spacecraft collected during its prime mission. More than a year of that data remains to be fully searched and analyzed. The team also plans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Kepler's launch on March 6. Plans will be announced on the mission's Facebook Page and Twitter account.