NASA’s Kepler mission to begin quest to find planets hosting life

February 20th, 2009 - 3:48 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 20 (IANS) NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is ready to begin a journey to search for worlds that could potentially host life.
It is scheduled for blast-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, aboard a Delta II rocket on March 5 at 7:48 p.m. Pacific Time (10:48 p.m. Eastern Time).

It is the first mission with the ability to find planets like Earth — rocky planets that orbit sun-like stars in a warm zone where liquid water could be maintained on the surface. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life.

“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, the astrophysics division director at NASA headquarters in Washington.

“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,” said Morse.

The mission will spend three-and-a-half years surveying more than 100,000 sun-like stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. It is expected to find hundreds of planets the size of earth and larger at various distances from their stars.

“Finding that most stars have earths implies that the conditions that support the development of life could be common throughout our galaxy,” said William Borucki, Kepler’s science principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field, California.

The Kepler telescope is specially designed to detect the periodic dimming of stars that planets cause as they pass by. It can detect even the faintest of these winks, registering changes in brightness of only 20 parts per million.

Accordingly, Kepler will use the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charged couple devices, known as CCDs, said a NASA release.

“If Kepler were to look down at a small town on earth at night from space, it would be able to detect the dimming of a porch light as somebody passed in front,” said James Fanson, Kepler project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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