Sunday, March 8, 2009

NASA's first mission to look for Earth-sized planets.

March 6, 2009-
NASA's Kepler Planet-Searcher Launched.

“This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself. Are other planets like ours out there? It's not just a science question - it's a basic human question.”
Ed Weiler, Assoc. Admin.,
NASA's Science Mission Directorate

NASA: “The Kepler spacecraft will watch a patch of space for 3.5 years or more for signs of Earth-sized planets moving around stars similar to the sun. The patch that Kepler will watch contains about 100,000 stars like the sun. Using special detectors similar to those used in digital cameras, Kepler will look for slight dimming in the stars as planets pass between the star and Kepler. The Kepler's place in space will allow it to watch the same stars constantly throughout its mission, something observatories like Hubble cannot do."

“Kepler will not be in an Earth orbit but in an Earth-trailing solar orbit so that Earth will not occlude the stars which are to be observed continuously and the photometer will not be influenced by stray light from Earth. This orbit also avoids gravitational perturbations and torques inherent in an Earth orbit, allowing for a more stable viewing platform. The shielding will be rotated to face the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. The photometer will point to a field in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, which is well out of the ecliptic plane, so that sun light never enters the photometer as the spacecraft orbits the Sun. Cygnus is also a good choice to observe because it will never be obscured by Kuiper belt objects or the asteroid belt.”

NASA: Five quick facts about the Kepler Mission which launched on March 6, 2009:

-- Kepler is the world's first mission with the ability to find true Earth analogs -- planets that orbit stars like our sun in the "habitable zone." The habitable zone is the region around a star where the temperature is just right for water -- an essential ingredient for life as we know it -- to pool on a planet's surface.

-- By the end of Kepler's three-and-one-half-year mission, it will give us a good idea of how common or rare other Earths are in our Milky Way galaxy. This will be an important step in answering the age-old question: Are we alone?

-- Kepler detects planets by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars. Some planets pass in front of their stars as seen from our point of view on Earth; when they do, they cause their stars to dim slightly, an event Kepler can see.

-- Kepler has the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, like those in everyday digital cameras.

-- Kepler's telescope is so powerful that, from its view up in space, it could detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night.

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