“It’s not E.T., but it’s E.T.’s home.” – William Borucki (NASA)

Someday it might be said that this was the beginning of the end of cosmic loneliness, said Dennis Overbye, a reporter for the New York Times. 

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Kepler Spacecraft taken from Ball Aerospace and Technologies Group.

The “beginning,” according to Overbye, refers to the anticipated launch of Kepler, a spacecraft that is designed to determine if there is life on other planets.  

After numerous delays, the rocket is scheduled to lift off from Florida on Friday evening at 10:50 p.m.  Kepler’s mission is to try and discover planets that resemble our own.  In other words, life-supporting planets that orbit other starts.  

All other extrasolar planets that have been detected up until this point have been about the size of Jupiter.  To the naked eye Jupiter may appear small, however, Kepler will search for planets 30 to 600 times smaller than Jupiter.  

The Kepler satalite, named for the German astronomer who in 1609 published laws of planetary motion that now bear his name, is equipped with a 55-inch-diameter telescope and a 95-million-pixel digital camera that has a field of view about the size of two open palms.  

Kepler will use a method known as the transit method of planet finding, which is a measurement of a planet’s shadow.  A small fraction of light is blocked from a parent star  when a planet passes over it.  With this passing, the planet is transiting the star.  Repeated transits prove the existence of a planet.  The brightness change indicates the size of the planet and time intervals between transits indicate the size of the planets orbit as well as an estimation of the planets temperature.  All of these factors would tell astronomers if the planet is “Earth-like”.

According to NASA, the spacecraft is designed to continuously and simultaneously monitor brightness of 10,000 stars brighter than 14th the magnitude in the constellations Caygnus and Lyrae.  To detect a life-supporting planet, Kepler must be able to sense a drop in brightness of only 1/100 of a percent.  The equivalent is sensing a drop in brightness when

 a fly passes by a car’s headlight.  

The point of the mission is not to find a particular planet but to determine exactly how rare planets like earth really are.  

Who, or what, else is really out there? 

 

 

References: 

In a Lonely Cosmos, a Hunt for Worlds Like Ours

 

A Nutshell Description of the Kepler Mission

 

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Kepler Spacecraft bus. 

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Assembled Photometer.

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Photometer installed on spacecraft. 

*All Photos from Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. 

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~ by awhite2 on November 2, 2009.

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