Local scientists rejoiced Friday at the news that the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, built by Boulder's Ball Aerospace and operated by the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, has been revived a year after the project was shelved by an equipment failure.
NASA approved two years of funding for a new Kepler mission called K2, which will observe different parts of the sky - including stars, star clusters, galaxies and supernovae - every two to three months.
"It's great news. Everybody's really walking on air after this decision," said Larry Esposito, a CU astrophysics and planetary sciences professor and member of LASP. "It was supposed to be dead, and we thought our operation was over here."
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has been considered wildly successful in its mission to locate Earth-like planets, having confirmed the existence of roughly 1,000 of them.
The project was derailed in May 2013, though, when the second of Kepler's four reaction wheels failed, rendering the spacecraft unable to perform precision pointing, which is essential to observing sections of the sky for long periods of time.
Because those wheels were compromised, the K2 mission will have a broad focus, observing vast swaths of sky for longer periods of time.
That project's renaissance largely was made possible by Ball engineers designing a new method of controlling pointing, managing solar pressure and using thrusters.
"It's rewarding to see all the hard work Ball put into K2 coming to fruition with the approval of the mission," said John Troeltzsch, the company's Kepler program manager. "We look forward to K2 enabling new discoveries over the next two years."
Pointing accuracy will be lower this time around, but experts say it'll get the job done. LASP's Bill Possel even called the science behind K2's reboot "ingenius."
"When we lost one wheel, and then another, we really started looking at options of what we could do with the spacecraft, both from a science point of view and for keeping the spacecraft healthy," he said. "This has brought new life to the program."
Among those celebrating the announcement of K2 were more about 20 undergraduate and graduate CU students, who are responsible for much of the real-time commanding of the spacecraft.
They're required to undergo a rigorous three-month training, but can then assume control of the telescope.
"It's a great benefit for the students to be able to be involved in a mission like this," Possel said. "And at the same time, its great for the taxpayers because they don't have to pay the students as much as NASA staffers."
First-year CU graduate student Scott Taylor said he's used to working with Kepler, but still gets goosebumps now and then.
"It was daunting the first time I ever sat down at the computer, and was actually sending commands to a satellite," he said. "Through the experience, you kind of get used it after a little while, but you always have to kind of take a step back and realize what you're doing.
"When you're sitting at a computer typing in things, it's easy to forget that you're actually commanding and talking to a spacecraft."Contact Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness at 303-473-1389, email@example.com or twitter.com/alex_burness.