put tele­scopes back in their places


I have one of the best jobs in the world, help­ing man­age NASA’s ex­o­planet-hunt­ing Ke­pler Space Tele­scope. In 2012 and 2013, the craft lost two of the four gy­ro­scope-like re­ac­tion wheels it uses to bal­ance it­self. Without at least three of them, it would tum­ble off into space. We man­aged to sta­bi­lize it by fir­ing its chem­i­cal thrusters, but the tele­scope was still mov­ing too much to make steady ob­ser­va­tions.

To give it new life, NASA be­gan what is now the K2 mis­sion. One of the project’s en­gi­neers, Doug Wiemer, sug­gested Ke­pler could bal­ance on its re­main­ing two wheels if the sun’s pho­tons were push­ing it at just the right spot, like a kayak point­ing di­rectly up­stream. We spent months try­ing to find the per­fect ori­en­ta­tion. The trial run went five times bet­ter than we could have hoped— and that was our first try! Four years later, we’ve found an­other 307 ex­o­plan­ets. When Ke­pler runs out of fuel in a few months, it will have done its job—twice.

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