Above: Artist's concept of the K2 mission, showing the telescope in two-wheel operation mode while observing in the ecliptic. Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel
One year ago, NASA's prolific planet-hunting telescope, Kepler, spun out of control. Two of the telescope's four reaction wheels, which it uses to orient itself, broke down. Unable to regain control of the spacecraft, Kepler was officially relieved of its duties a few months later in August 2013.
But Kepler wasn't dead yet. Determined to make the most of the hamstrung spacecraft, NASA invited the public to propose how the telescope might best be put to use. Three months later, the Agency unveiled "K2," a crafty plan to revive the spacecraft by turning the probe's solar panels into what would amount to a third, limited-functionality reaction wheel. Today, NASA announced K2 has been approved.
The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae. The 2014 Senior Review report is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/d….
After the second wheel of Kepler's guidance control system failed last year during the spacecraft's extended mission, engineers devised a clever solution to manage the sun's radiation pressure and limit its effect on the spacecraft pointing. K2 will observe target fields along the ecliptic plane, the orbital path of planets in our solar system also know as the zodiac, for approximately 75-day campaigns.
The team is currently finishing up an end-to-end shakedown of this approach with a full-length campaign (Campaign 0), and is preparing for Campaign 1, the first K2 science observation run, scheduled to begin May 30.
Good to have you back, Kepler. We missed you.
To learn more about the K2 mission visit the Kepler Science Center website.