March 5, 2009

Kepler spacecraft set for Friday launch

The U.S. space agency said final preparations were under way for the scheduled launch Friday of its Kepler spacecraft.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Kepler's mission is to find other Earth-like planets orbiting stars in habitable zones -- regions where water could pool on the surface of planets. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life, NASA said.

The spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during one of two windows -- 10:49 p.m. to 10:52 p.m. EST and 11:13 p.m. to 11:16 p.m. EST.

Eventually the spacecraft and its telescope will enter an Earth-trailing orbit around the sun, similar to that of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. That, scientists said, will give the telescope an unobstructed view of an area near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, allowing it to observe more than 100,000 stars during its 3 1/2-year mission.

This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself -- are other planets like ours out there? said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. It's not just a science question -- it's a basic human question.