Nasa's retired principal investigator for the Kepler mission, Bill Borucki, described it as an "enormous success". "But now we know, because of the Kepler Space Telescope and its science mission, that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy".
For years, Kepler stared at a fixed area of the sky bridging the constellations Lyra and Cygnus to monitor about 150,000 stars for signs of planets. "Some of those, in fact, might be actual water worlds".
This artist's concept obtained October 30, 2018, courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle shows Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone. "Imagine what life might be like on such planets". But Kepler's overall planet census showed that 20 to 50 per cent of the stars visible in the night sky could have planets like ours in the habitable zone for life, he said.
The unmanned space telescope, which launched in 2009, revealed that there are billions of hidden planets in space and revolutionized humanity's understanding of the universe.
Just like biologists continue to discover new species by examining the samples already found in museum collections, the data already gathered by Kepler could keep astronomers busy for years to come.
"The Kepler mission was based on a very innovative design".
The spacecraft's camera was not created to take pictures like other space telescopes. That is, a small dip in the light from a star as the planet passed in front of it.
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"It was like trying to detect a flea crawling across a vehicle headlight when the auto was 100 miles away", said Borucki said.
Working in deep space for nine years, Kepler discovered planets from outside the solar system, many of which could be promising places for life. Kepler also found Mother Nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems with an astounding number of planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner Solar System looks sparse by comparison. Small rocket thrusters were used to counteract the slight pressure exerted on the spacecraft by sunlight.
NASA's Ames Research Center manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
The asteroid-hopping Dawn mission ran out of fuel last month. Two weeks ago, it finally exhausted the last of its propellant. In the lead-up to its impending retirement, "scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential" by preemptively powering down the spacecraft several times to extend its lifespan.
Kepler's nine-and-a-half-year flight was more than twice as long as originally planned.
"We saw it drop from 90 psi [pounds per square inch] all the way down to 25 psi" over a few hours, said Charlie Sobeck, project system engineer for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center. "It always did everything we asked of it, and sometimes more".
Kepler's more advanced successor is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April. It is created to cover an area 400 times larger than Kepler could manage and is expected to find some 20,000 or more exoplanets during the course of its mission. As of October 29, Kepler had detected 2,681 exoplanets, with an additional 2,899 exoplanet candidates awaiting confirmation, said Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA Ames. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.