Recently, I edited a story for the magazine about NASA's Kepler Telescope and its search for earthlike planets outside our solar system. It’s a fascinating spacecraft and mission, and I’ll be following its progress closely. What’s more, NASA has scheduled the spacecraft to rocket into the night sky this Friday, March 6, from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The mission should tell us how common rocky planets like Earth are. Of the 340 extrasolar planets discovered so far, fewer than a handful are rocky like Earth and none is Earth-sized.
Before the launch, NASA will conduct a mission science briefing at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday afternoon, March 5. The briefing follows a 1 P.M. EST prelaunch news conference. Come back often, because we’ll post the latest news on Astronomy.com.
Kepler will focus on a single region of the sky and snap repeated images of 100,000 stars with its 95-megapixel camera. It’s looking for stars that dim periodically. Once Kepler team members find a candidate and determine they're not looking at an eclipsing binary star, they will hand off the data to another science team. The second group has reserved Lick Observatory's 3-meter telescope in California and the W. M. Keck Observatory's twin 10-meter telescopes in Hawaii. These instruments will measure the shift in the star’s light caused by the orbiting planet.
Will astronomers find Earth-sized planets? Almost definitely. In fact, by the end of the 3.5-year mission, most expect to find hundreds. I’ll be watching and waiting for that first other “Earth” to appear, and I know many of you will, too.
Q&A: Kepler mission — not just for planet research