Sad news from today: it looks like the planet-hunting Kepler telescope has been permanently crippled by a mechanical malfunction.
I wonder what amount of the unfeasibility of sending a mission to fix Kepler is technical, what part is due to real cost-benefit analysis, and what part is just a lack of incentive to go to extremes to fix it. Perhaps it is cynical of me, but it seems like there might just be less incentive for a government agency to try to fix their malfunctioning technology than if it were owned by a private entity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the actual engineers working to fix Kepler, gave it 110% and worked until their eyes bled (figuratively, I hope) but I certainly haven’t heard any congressmen make a peep about spending money to aid the effort.
Perhaps it’s a false comparison, but Kepler reminds me of Deepwater Horizon – malfunctioning assets worth hundreds of millions. However, the reputation of a private company facing legal sanctions rested on Deepwater Horizon. None of this is the case for Kepler, and thus much less is being done to fix it.
It seems to me like a mission to repair Kepler would itself be in line with NASA’s goals. It would demonstrate new technological capabilities and restore functionality to a valuable science asset. Both the private and public sectors have been taking steps towards on-orbit-servicing. This is a chance for NASA to do exactly what (at least I think) NASA should do – blaze a trail for completely new space capabilities through missions that are far too risky for private companies.
On top of the other benefits, rescuing Kepler could be a smashing PR piece. Kepler just needs to be portrayed as the poor lost child, and the outpouring of public sentiment might be similar to when Spirit became stuck. Who wouldn’t support heroic NASA, saving a kid that fell down a gravity well?