NASA's Kepler spacecraft will soon begin a journey to search for worlds that could potentially host life. Kepler is scheduled to blast into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., 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.
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. If Earth-size planets are common in the habitable zone, Kepler could find dozens; if those planets are rare, Kepler might find none.
In the end, the mission will be our first step toward answering a question posed by the ancient Greeks: are there other worlds like ours or are we alone?
Artist concept of Kepler in space. Image credit: NASA/JPL
"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."
The Kepler telescope is specially designed to detect the periodic dimming of stars that planets cause as they pass by. Some star systems are oriented in such a way that their planets cross in front of their stars, as seen from our Earthly point of view. As the planets pass by, they cause their stars' light to slightly dim, or wink.
"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 Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "Finding few or no Earths indicates that we might be alone."
The telescope can detect even the faintest of these winks, registering changes in brightness of only 20 parts per million. To achieve this resolution, Kepler will use the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charged couple devices, known as CCDs.
"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.
By staring at one large patch of sky for the duration of its lifetime, Kepler will be able to watch planets periodically transit their stars over multiple cycles. This will allow astronomers to confirm the presence of planets. Earth-size planets in habitable zones would theoretically take about a year to complete one orbit, so Kepler will monitor those stars for at least three years to confirm the planets' presence. Ground-based telescopes and NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes will perform follow-up studies on the larger planets.
"Kepler is a critical cornerstone in understanding what types of planets are formed around other stars," said exoplanet hunter Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University in California. "The discoveries that emerge will be used immediately to study the atmospheres of large, gas exoplanets with Spitzer. And the statistics that are compiled will help us chart a course toward one day imaging a pale blue dot like our planet, orbiting another star in our galaxy."
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 Boulder, Colo., is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations. For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Random Thoughts Of A Physicist In Honeymoon
- Climate Change Made The Sahara Green - Then Took It Away Again
- It's Been Another Record Year For Agriculture - When Do Climate Change Forecasts Come True?
- Sitting Linked To Premature Aging - And Hopefully Skepticism
- How Viruses Leave Messages For Descendants On How To 'Infect'
- Anomaly! Book Of The Week At Times Higher Education
- Scientists For Trump In Spite Of Vaccine Autism And Climate Comments
- "I don't know why my comment's formatting was lost in the transmission, so that it is now one big..."
- "“If you don't use probabilities then how else do you do it? At any rate that's not a criticism..."
- "Tomasso, Congratulations, may you enjoy a long and happy life together with Kalliopi! Best regards..."
- "Found another one : http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/545975/end-of-the-world-Gods-vengeance..."
- "Thanks :). Actually there are so many fake doomsday red top tabloid stories that I tend to wait..."
- Nexium: The Dark Side Of Pharma
- Timeline of New Year's Resolutions
- MRI May Help 27% Of Suspected Prostate Cancer Patients Avoid Biopsies
- McKesson Fined $150 Million as they contribute to opioid crisis - Too Big to Punish
- Are Science Journals Politically Biased? Editor-in-Chief of ACS Journal Refuses to Discuss Editorial Policy
- 7 Marathons in 7 Days on 7 Continents (Healthy?)