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The king of planet hunters is officially beyond salvation. NASA's Kepler space telescope, the first one specifically designed to find planets around other stars, has irrevocable malfunctions in its precision steering system. That means it is impossible for the spacecraft to continue its original mission of scanning for Earth-sized worlds around sun-like stars.

But Kepler is not totally down and out. The mission team has more than two years' worth of data still waiting to be analysed, with potentially many Earth-sized worlds yet to be discovered. And the telescope itself may get a second life pursuing less demanding tasks, such as hunting comets, observing supernovae or even spotting more planets using a different technique.

"We expect hundreds, if not thousands, of discoveries," principal investigator William Borucki said today during a media briefing.

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