NASA hasn’t had the best luck with its space telescopes. The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 with a flawed mirror that had to be repaired by astronauts during a series of spacewalks in 1994. Now the Kepler space telescope—exoplanet-hunting extraordinaire—is waiting in orbit for a new mission after the second of its four reaction wheels failed. The devices orient and stabilize the craft, and without them, Kepler isn’t a very good planet hunter.
After the second wheel failed in May, NASA put out a call for ideas on how to repurpose the telescope. It’s not unusual for government agencies to do such a thing—they often receive many good ideas from scientists who do not work closely with the agency. The telescope’s optics are no longer stable enough to observe the dimming of exoplanets passing in front of their stars, but they may be good enough to observe larger celestial bodies. As a result, one of the plans calls for Kepler to study starquakes in massive, short-lived OB stars. You heard that right—astroseismology. Such quakes cause stars to flicker, and OB stars churn out heavier elements when they supernova, making their study uniquely important.
Clara Moskowitz, writing for Scientific American:
Now, the somewhat shakier Kepler can’t point precisely enough to study the flickers of low-mass stars. Oscillations of larger stars, however, should create much stronger signals that should still be within the capabilities of Kepler to detect, says Conny Aerts, director of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Leuven in Belgium, who is lead author of the proposal. Furthermore, such studies cannot be done well from the ground, because they require watching the same stars continuously for long periods of time in order to spot oscillations with periods of hours or days, and ground-based telescopes have to stop observing every time the sun comes up.
Not all scientists are convinced that Kepler could be successfully repurposed, nor do all of them think it would be the best use for the telescope. Still, it’s a clever idea that may keep an already successful mission running and contributing to scientific research. Exoplanet hunters still have a backlog of data to sift through in their quest to find Earth-like worlds, and now Kepler’s new mission could give an entirely different set of astronomers a raft of new information.