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May 22 2013

The Wheels Come Off Kepler Planet-Finding Mission


NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is not only the most prolific exoplanet detector ever; it is — or was — a marvel of engineering. Its 1.4-meter mirror funnels starlight to a 95-megapixel camera, capable of discerning dips in brightness as small as 10 parts per million — clues to the mini-eclipses caused by an exoplanet crossing the star’s face. Yet on 14 May, the US$600-million craft was derailed by the failure of one of its only moving parts — a roughly $200,000 device akin to a child’s gyroscope.

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