Mission to Seek Earth-like Planets

WASHINGTON ~ NASA was due to launch the Kepler space telescope on Friday on the space agency’s first mission to detect Earth-like planets that may harbor life in our solar system.

Kepler’s massive telescope was scheduled for launch atop a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

It will be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting suns similar to ours, at just the right distance and temperature for life-sustaining water to exist.

“Kepler is a critical component in NASA’s broader efforts to ultimately find and study planets where Earth-like conditions may be present,” Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at the US space agency’s Washington headquarters, told a press conference last month.

“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.

Kepler’s discoveries “may fundamentally alter humanity’s view of itself.”

Equipped with the largest camera ever launched into space – a 95-megapixel array of charged couple devices, known as CCDs – the Kepler telescope is able to detect the faint, periodic dimming of stars that planets cause as they pass by.

“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,” according to Kepler project manager James Fanson.

At a cost of close to US$600 million, the Kepler mission will last three years and examine more than 100,000 sun-like stars around the Swan and Lyre constellations of the Milky Way.

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