NASA engineers have raised a mission emergency in regards to the exoplanet-hunting spacecraft Kepler, which has unexpectedly entered its emergency mode 75 million miles from Earth. This mode is the lowest level of operation for the craft and worryingly, also consumes the most fuel while in it.
The last time that NASA communicated with Kepler was on April 4th, where it was still fully operational and reporting no issues. Despite this, by the 7th, Kepler was reporting that it had been in emergency mode for a day and a half. This is certainly not good but as communication with the spacecraft is still possible, recovery from whatever went wrong may still be possible.
It won’t be easy to get Kepler back on track, though, as due to the enormous distance from Earth, any messages will take a whole 13 minutes in order to reach the craft. In order to have the best chance of getting Kepler back into normal operation, the mission support team have been granted priority access to NASA’s deep space telecommunications system and will provide updates on the craft’s status as it develops.
Kepler is no stranger to technical difficulties and its mission team have proven themselves capable of recovering the craft in the past. In July 2012 and later May 2013, Kepler lost one of its four reaction wheels used to steer the craft. Being down to half of these wheels should have proven fatal to the craft, which required precise directional control to search for planets. Despite this, a workaround using the pressure from the sun was found that allowed Kepler to continue its mission and has operated this way for almost 3 years.