March 7, 2009

After Launch, Kepler Prepares To Carry Out Its Mission

After the successful launch of the revolutionary Kepler telescope on Friday, NASA is making final preparations before it carries on with its mission to search out other planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

"Our team is thrilled to be a part of something so meaningful to the human race. Kepler will help us understand if our Earth is unique or if others like it are out there." Said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

After Kepler separated from its third-stage rocket and entered its final sun-centered orbit "” some 950 miles behind Earth - NASA officials began picking up its signal just after midnight.

The spacecraft is generating its own power from its solar panels.

Engineers have begun the 60-day "commissioning" process, which checks the telescope for any malfunctions sustained from the trip to orbit.

Kepler will be instructed to eject its dust cover and make its first measurements in a month's time or less, officials said. After another month of calibrating Kepler's single instrument, a wide-field charge-couple device camera, the telescope will begin to search for planets.

"Kepler is a critical component in NASA's broader efforts to ultimately find and study planets where Earth-like conditions may be present," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at the U.S. space agency's Washington headquarters.

"The planetary census Kepler takes will be very important for understanding the frequency of Earth-size planets in our galaxy and planning future missions that directly detect and characterize such worlds around nearby stars," he added.

NASA said there is now clear evidence for substantial numbers of three types of exoplanets; gas giants, hot-super-Earths in short period orbits, and ice giants.

The massive space observation telescope will first be trained on the "hot Jupiters" -- gas giants that circle close and fast around their stars. Eventually, NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes will be able to follow up with these planets and learn more about their atmospheres.

Next will be the Neptune-sized planets, followed by rocky ones around the same size as Earth.

Officials said it would take at least three years to discover and confirm Earth analogs -- Earth-sized planets orbiting stars like our sun at distances where surface water, and possibly life, could exist.

Additionally, other ground-based telescopes will be used to verify some of the mission's finds.

NASA hopes Kepler will provide a first look at the frequency of Earth-size planets in our galaxy, as well as the frequency of Earth-size planets that could theoretically be habitable.

Kepler will drift farther and farther behind Earth in its orbit around the sun as the mission progresses. Launched into the same orbit more than five years ago, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is now more than 62 million miles behind Earth.

William Borucki, the mission's science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., said Kepler now has the perfect place to watch more than 100,000 stars for signs of planets.

"Everyone is very excited as our dream becomes a reality. We are on the verge of learning if other Earths are ubiquitous in the galaxy."

"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, who has worked on the mission for 17 years.


Image Caption:  Artist's rendition of Kepler in space. Credit: NASA


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