Feeds

NASA's Kepler ready (again) to snoop for Earth-like planets

The Gladys Kravitz of spacecraft

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

After delaying Kepler's eagerly-anticipated launch so NASA engineers could kick the tires on the spacecraft's Delta II rocket, the agency declared today a fine day for blastoff.

The Kepler telescope, the first spacecraft capable of detecting Earth-sized planets outside of our solar system, is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida this evening.

Boffins hope to use Kepler to find evidence of other habitable worlds by scouring a small patch of the Milky Way for the next 3.5 years. If all goes well, the telescope may uncover how common Earth-like planets are with conditions suitable for life as we know it.

Kepler's mission was delayed from its original March 6 launch window so that engineers could address concerns over the launch vehicle after last week's failed launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. The $273m CO2-sniffing satellite's Taurus XL rocket didn't deploy the payload as planned February 24, sending the remains of the craft crashing into the Pacific Ocean.

Because the two rockets share certain parts in common, NASA heads wanted to make sure they weren't in for a repeat.

Kepler sports the biggest telescope ever to be launched into space, but the spacecraft won't be beaming back photogenic scenes like the Hubble telescope does. Kepler will use an incredibly sensitive light meter designed to detect minute fluctuations in a star's brightness as orbiting planets cross Kepler's field of view. Scientists have relied on less-precise light inspection and on measuring a star's wobble to find new exoplanets — although the methods haven't yet spotted worlds the size of Earth.

The French satellite CoRot holds the current record for discovering the smallest known extra-solar planet, spotting in February a world a bit less than twice the size of Earth. The planet, dubbed CoRoT-Exo-7b, is unlikely to host life since its local temperatures are more than 1,000°C.

Scientists will be a bit more picky with Kepler, restricting the search to worlds that aren't too close or too far from their stars, making it possible for them to retain liquid water.

Although scientists aren't exactly sure how common Earth-like planets are in the galaxy, NASA says its confident Kepler will find them - if they're out there.

For those following the launch, NASA will offer extremely up-to-date information on Kepler via the mission's Twitter feed. The agency will also air the launch over the web on NASA TV. Coverage starts at 8:30pm EST (1:30am GMT). ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.