"Alien Life Payload?" NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Downloads Exoplanet Science Data

According to NASA, Kepler staff have put the craft into hibernation mode until August, when the plan to turn it back on and use NASA's Deep Space Network to transfer mission data back to Earth. Among other findings, recently 24 new planet discoveries were made using data from the 10th observation campaign, adding to the spacecraft's growing bounty of 2,650 confirmed planets. The team will start its 19th observation campaign on August 6 if the download is successful.

Artist's concept of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. The mission team has been closely monitoring the spacecraft for signs of low fuel, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months.

Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign since May 12 collecting data from the part of the sky towards the constellation of Cancer that it earlier studied in 2015.

But as of now, returning the data back to Earth is the "highest priority" for the remaining fuel. It will remain asleep until early August, when controllers attempt to send down the data collected before observations were interrupted. For example, in addition to its impressive raw planet tally (which will go up significantly; scientists are still vetting more than 2,000 planet candidates detected by Kepler), the spacecraft's observations suggest that about 20 percent of sunlike stars host a roughly Earth-size planet in the habitable zone - that just-right range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface.

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We don't yet know if there's life on other worlds, however likely that is, but NASA's Kepler Mission satellite has helped pinpoint the abundance of planets orbiting other stars starting in May 2009. Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode.

In 2013, Kepler's primary mission ended when a second reaction wheel broke, rendering it unable to hold its gaze steady at the original field of view. So far, it has provided data that scientists have used to confirm the existence of 2,650 exoplanets in a field of over 150,000 stars that it's examining. Kepler is doing this extended-mission work during roughly 80-day "campaigns", each of which has a slightly different focus. The craft is now on its 18th K2 observation campaign.

Flight controllers placed the planet-hunting spacecraft into hibernation last week to save energy. TESS is a massive upgrade, observing nearly 400 times the region of space as Kepler, or about 85% of what's observable from its orbit relative to Earth.

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