Yesterday’s announcement has been expected for the past few months, ever since problems with a second reaction wheel were first detected, but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate. It was well known that Kepler‘s days were numbered and the recent safe mode event taking place under such circumstances should have probably made everyone realize that we were truly looking at a matter of days, but I think most were still hoping that it’ll somehow continue to function and bring us new and interesting discoveries for at least a while longer, if not even until a successor will be launched to take its place.
Now that two of its four reaction wheels have failed, the spacecraft will need to resort to thrusters to stabilize itself, which in turn require fuel, making the solution temporary at best. According to the team, the fuel reserves could still power the thrusters for months, but in order to buy even more time to look for a solution, they have decided to switch the spacecraft to a fuel-saving behavior, allowing certain variations in position and obviously making any data collection completely impossible in order to ensure that the fuel will last for years, during which time they might either stumble upon some method to properly mitigate the effects of the existing problems or, failing that, find some other way in which Kepler may continue to be of use, possibly for other projects.
At the same time, the mission itself, which is funded all the way to 2016, will certainly not end here. It may have recently produced our best find yet, but it was known from the beginning that many, if not most, discoveries will be made after the spacecraft will cease to function and that is very likely to be the case, seeing as the team stated that they still have some two years of data not yet completely analyzed, not to mention that confirming planets requires even further observations once the candidates are clearly identified in the data from Kepler. After all, the number of confirmed planets currently stands at less than 5% of the number of planet candidates while it was estimated that a minimum of 80%, and probably 90% or more, of the identified planet candidates will be confirmed as planets once properly analyzed.
It needs to be remembered that we’re talking about a relatively low-cost mission, the spacecraft therefore never having been likely to continue operating long past the end of its primary mission, which was in November, and that there have been issues to mitigate even before that, in order to keep it operational even this long. But this is what science is facing these days, when it seems that preserving an outdated, failed and terribly harmful economic system is far more important, so all I can do is thank the team and all the others who were and will continue to be involved in the effort for their hard work and dedication and look towards the future, waiting for the next discoveries and developments.