NASA’s Kepler mission sends first shots of planet-hunting territoryApril 17th, 2009 - 5:17 pm ICT by IANS
Washington, April 17 (IANS) NASA’s Kepler mission has captured its first images of the star-rich sky where it will soon begin hunting for planets like Earth.
The new “first light” images show the mission’s target patch of sky, a vast starry field in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy.
One image shows millions of stars in Kepler’s full field of view, while two others zoom in on portions of the larger region.
“Kepler’s first glimpse of the sky is awe-inspiring,” said Lia LaPiana, Kepler’s programme executive. “To be able to see millions of stars in a single snapshot is simply breathtaking.”
One new image from Kepler shows its entire field of view — a 100-square-degree portion of the sky, equivalent to two side-by-side dips of the Big Dipper. The regions contain an estimated 14 millions stars, more than 1,00,000 of which were selected as ideal candidates for planet hunting.
“It’s thrilling to see this treasure trove of stars,” said William Borucki, science principal investigator for Kepler.
“We expect to find hundreds of planets circling those stars, and for the first time, we can look for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones around other stars like the sun.”
Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years searching more than 100,000 pre-selected stars for signs of planets. It is expected to find a variety of worlds, from large, gaseous ones, to rocky ones as small as Earth.
The mission is the first with the ability to find planets like ours — small, rocky planets orbiting sun-like stars in the habitable zone, where temperatures are right for possible lakes and oceans of water.
“Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-size planets,” said James Fanson, Kepler’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. “Our images are road maps that will allow us, in a few years, to point to a star and say a world like ours is there.”
Scientists and engineers will spend the next few weeks calibrating Kepler’s science instrument, the photometer, and adjusting the telescope’s alignment to achieve the best focus. Once these steps are complete, the planet hunt will begin, said a NASA press release.
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