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Space telescope on fritz, may be junked

The Kepler Space Telescope, the celebrated discoverer of worlds around distant stars, may have found its last planet. NASA announced Wednesday that the telescope, which to date has cost $600 million to build and operate, has lost the ability to point accurately.

It’s not dead, but by going wobbly it can’t do the precision observations necessary for spotting signs of “exoplanets.” Kepler is 40 million miles from Earth, too far away to be fixed even if NASA still had a space shuttle and could throw together a repair mission.

“Kepler’s not in a place where I can go up and rescue it, or any other astronaut,” said John Grunsfeld, the head of science at NASA.

The Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, seemed fine when NASA technicians and scientists communicated with it last Thursday. But on Sunday, the telescope signaled that it had gone into “safe” mode, as it is programmed to do when it has a problem. Although NASA didn’t know conclusively why that happened, on Tuesday engineers discovered that one of the reaction wheels used for steering wouldn’t spin.

The spacecraft has four such wheels. One had failed previously. Now two were inoperative.

There is no way to control the pitch, roll and yaw of a spacecraft with just two reaction wheels.

NASA officials vowed in their news conference to try to restart the wheel or find a workaround to allow Kepler to resume planet-hunting.