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NASA scientists telecommute 75 million miles, rescue Kepler spacecraft

A malfunction jeopardized Kepler, the space agency's best hope to find new planets. Its mission remains on hold.

Back in 2013, it seemed like the Kepler space telescope and its mission to pick out exoplanets from observations of deep space might be wrapping up as parts of the craft began to fail.Throughout 2014, data already collected by Kepler led to new discoveries of abundant exoplanets circling distant stars, including some that might even be cousins to Earth. But as of December, new planet discoveries were still being credited to Kepler, even as it continues to operate in a semi-crippled state.

It may be the greatest telecommute ever.

NASA said Monday that a team of engineers had managed to stabilize the Kepler spacecraft, which had mysteriously gone into "emergency mode" last week after traveling 75 million miles from Earth.

Emergency mode is just what it sounds like: Kepler went into the "Star Trek" equivalent of hibernation, shutting down its systems to save fuel and preserve itself. NASA scientists feared the $600 million craft, which was surveying millions of stars and searching for habitable planets, might be lost.

NASA's team worked around the weekend to re-establish contact with the probe, a task that was complicated by distance. Even at the speed of light, messages to and from Kepler take 13 minutes.

Even now, NASA can't explain what's wrong with Kepler, a critical tool in the space agency's quest to find a planet like Earth. Kepler's mission remains on hold as NASA tries to figure out what went wrong with the probe.

"A cause has not been determined," NASA spokeswoman Michele Johnson said in an email. "That will take time."

NASA had plans to point a powerful telescope on Kepler toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the neighborhood the Earth is in, for a new planet-hunting mission. That mission was known as Campaign 9.

Kepler has been a workhorse for NASA. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has helped confirm the identity of 1,963 planets outside of our solar system. In July, NASA announced that one of its discoveries -- dubbed planet Kepler-452b -- is the closest match to the Earth of any known planet with a 385-day orbit around a star that resembles our own sun.