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Kepler, Hubble, Seven Others Get NASA’s Okay to Keep on Searching

Kepler's search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy will continue through 2016, NASA announced this week. Image Credit/NASA

NASA has extended nine of the agency’s astrophysics missions – programs like Kepler and Hubble that probe the cosmos in search of answers to some of the our most profound questions – how did the universe originate, how did it evolve, are there other planets like the Earth, is there life elsewhere?

The extenstion in eight cases extends through 2016, and in one case, Planck’s,  through 2014.

The announcement from NASA came April 5 and highlighted the exo-planet searching Kepler mission, which was launched in 2009 and slated to reach the end of it primary investigation period at the end of this year.

So far, the Kepler telescope has identified more than 2,100 potential planets circling other stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers have confired 61 one of those using an exacting standard. But the real goal of Kepler is to find Earth like worlds orbiting stars within the so-called “habtitable zone, “or not too far and not too close to their stars to rule out the prospects of life as we know it.

NASA’s 22-year-old Hubble Space Telescope mission earned a similar reprieved as it continues to refine estimates for the age of the universe, and characterize the planet forming processes around other stars. Astronomers would like to keep Hubble operating at least until its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, can be launched in 2018.

The mission extensions were based on the recommendations  of a NASA-selected peer review panel, the Senior Review Committee, whose 12 members came from academia, other federal agencies and industry.

NASA space shuttle astronauts upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit/NASA photo


The NASA announcement originated from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which spotlighted the extensions of three of its programs, Kepler, the Spitzer space telescope, launched in 2003, and Planck, a European Space Agency mission with NASA participation, also launched in 2009.

“This means scientists can continue using the three spacecraft to study everything from the birth of the universe with Planck,  and galaxies, stars, planets, comets and asteroids with Spitzer, while Kepler is determining what percentage of sun-like stars host potentially habitable Earth-like planets,” said Michael Werner, the chief scientist for astronomy and physics at JPL. 

The other extended missions include the Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999;  Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope,  2008; Suzaku Spaccraft Mission, a joint effort with Japan,  2005; Swift Gamma-ray Burst mission, 2004;  and XMM Newton, 1999.

The European Space Agency's Planck observatory studies the formations of the earliest objects in the universe. Image Credit/ ESA image

In assessing the merits of the extensions, the SRC noted the projected decline in NASA’s astrophysics budget to deal with cost overruns and delays in the development of the Jame Webb Space Telescope. Without the extensions, theU. S.risks loosing some of its lead in the field of space astrophysics, the panel noted.

The SRC also noted that a number of NASA’s future missions depend on findings from missions like Kepler and the others.

But the review panel urged NASA and its operators to look hard at identifying ways of reducing the operating costs of their missions. Current projections show the agency’s astrophysics budget falling to $659 million in 2013 and risign to no more than $710 million by 2017,  leaving  little –if any – room for new mission starts.



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