NASA’s Kepler Mission Rockets to Space in Search of Other Earths
(Logo: /Photo: http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO )
“It was a stunning launch,” said Kepler Project Manager
Engineers acquired a signal from Kepler at
“Kepler now has the perfect place to watch more than 100,000 stars for signs of planets,” said
Engineers have begun to check Kepler to ensure it is working properly, a process called “commissioning” that will take about 60 days. In about a month or less, NASA will send up commands for Kepler to eject its dust cover and make its first measurements. After another month of calibrating Kepler’s single instrument, a wide-field charge-couple device camera, the telescope will begin to search for planets.
The first planets to roll out on the Kepler “assembly line” are expected to be the portly “hot Jupiters” — gas giants that circle close and fast around their stars. NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes will be able to follow up with these planets and learn more about their atmospheres. Neptune-size planets will most likely be found next, followed by rocky ones as small as Earth. The true Earth analogs — Earth-sized planets orbiting stars like our sun at distances where surface water, and possibly life, could exist — would take at least three years to discover and confirm. Ground-based telescopes also will contribute to the mission by verifying some of the finds.
In the end, Kepler will give us our first look at the frequency of Earth-size planets in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as the frequency of Earth-size planets that could theoretically be habitable.
“Even if we find no planets like Earth, that by itself would be profound. It would indicate that we are probably alone in the galaxy,” said Borucki.
As the mission progresses, Kepler will drift farther and farther behind Earth in its orbit around the sun. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched into the same orbit more than five years ago, is now more than 62 million miles behind Earth.
Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is the home organization of the science principal investigator and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of
For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: