Unexpected hiccup for NASA's high-profile planet finder

NASA tonight that its high-profile Kepler planet-finding mission was found to have experienced an anomaly during a scheduled contact on December 13th. The agency says it took around 13 hours to correct the problem, during which data-taking time was lost. Investigations are underway to determine the root cause.

Kepler searches for planets by monitoring around 150,000 stars in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations for blips that could indicate the presence of planets transiting in front of the stars. A unique feature of the spacecraft is that it will stare at these same stars continuously for its 3-4 mission lifetime, enabling the possibility of detecting several transits by planets in year-long, Earth-like orbits. NASA says that during the scheduled contact, Kepler was found to be using the wrong system to keep focused on its chosen catalog; it was using star trackers, instead of fine guidance sensors needed to track the stars with sufficiently fine accuracy. The problem came about after a regular procedure to dump momentum that builds up as Kepler pushes against the solar wind.

Kepler's next data release is expected on February 1st, 2011.

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