As a planet hunter falters, a new spacecraft takes flight

Big week for NASA last week. The Kepler space telescope, the most prolific exoplanet detector ever, is paralyzed. Meanwhile, the Dream Chaser spacecraft is prepping for its first test flights.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

Last week, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft (pictured) arrived at NASA to begin its first test flights. It’s one of three vehicles being developed for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, which will launch astronauts to the International Space Station and elsewhere in low earth orbit later this decade. Wired reports.

Unlike the symmetrical capsule design of its Boeing and SpaceX competitors (which will return to earth under a parachute), Dream Chaser is a flying, lifting-body design that will land on a runway after reentry from space -- like the space shutter orbiters.

After completing its first major safety review last month, Dream Chaser left Colorado and arrived at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility in California. Following reassembly and ground-based tests, the craft will begin flight testing next door on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Since the space shuttle program’s retirement, the U.S. has relied on Russia’s Soyuz vehicles. NASA just paid an additional $424 million to provide transportation to the ISS through 2017.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Kepler space telescope is paralyzed! Last week, officials announced that a crucial wheel is malfunctioning, and the craft put itself into safe mode, pending a repair that many say is unlikely to happen.

With more than 2,700 candidate planets identified and 132 confirmed since its 2009 launch, Kepler revolutionized scientists' appreciation of exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars), Los Angeles Times reports. Its 3.5-year mission was extended last year through 2016.

The telescope works by staring at a patch of sky and watching for barely noticeable dips in distant starlight. Those dips are the result of shadows cast by planets as they pass in front of their parent stars.

Four reaction wheels (pictured) point the spacecraft in the right direction. One failed a year ago, and without at least three to control the spacecraft, the $600-million Kepler is essentially useless for hunting planets. Can it be saved? We’ll know soon.

[Via Wired, Los Angeles Times, Nature]

Images: Sierra Nevada Corporation (top), NASA/Kepler/Ball Aerospace (bottom)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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